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Jules Verne (1828-1905) is a phenomenon: the world’s most translated writer

and one of the greatest accumulated sales. With Journey to the Center of the
Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas, and Around the World in
Eighty Days, the Frenchman reshaped global literature. He still dominates the
U.S. box office and pervades our life and culture.

But behind all the success lay a tormented man: a sexual misfit, a plagiarist,
then a sad and lonely recluse. Now at last comes an authoritative biography wor-
thy of this controversial figure. William Butcher combines groundbreaking re-
search on Verne’s childhood and bohemian decades with the revelation of an un-
known contemporary biography and of Verne’s first book.

He brilliantly recounts the novelist’s money woes and amorous escapades, Scot-
tish ancestry and right-wing connections, court cases and near-murder. This eru-
dite but highly readable narrative reveals the man inside the legend.

Hongkonger William Butcher has been one of the leading authorities on Verne for
twenty years. His countless articles and eleven books have led to an unparalleled
knowledge of this multi-faceted figure. He is the only scholar to have read the
brilliant sections cut from the best-known novels.
iii

Reactions to Jules Verne:

“magnificent,” Rain Taxi


“quite remarkable”, Agnès Marcetteau-Paul
“deservedly subtitle[d] the ‘Definitive Biography,’ ” Kieran O’Driscoll
“far surpass[es] previous efforts,” Prof. Arthur B. Evans
“eclipses anything published before in English,” Peter Costello
“a vivid read,” Washington Post
“Verne gave us the earth and the moon. Now Butcher gives us the real Verne.
Bravo!” Ray Bradbury
“A fascinating portrait of a flesh-and-blood human being,” Volker Dehs
“The most documented, detailed, and accurate biography,” C ount Piero Gondolo
della Riva
“un outil superbe,” Jean-Michel Margot
“a remarkable achievement,” Ron Miller
“opens a box of goodies whose key should have been jimmied long ago,” Tom
McCormick
“radiates fascination,” Booklist
“every page is full of interest and insight,” Science Besieged
“the best modern biography of Verne,” Encyclopaedia Britannica
iv

Jules Verne
The Definitive Biography

William Butcher
Foreword by Arthur C. Clarke

Revised Edition, 2008


v

Jules Verne: The Definitive Biography

Copyright © 2006, 2008 by William Butcher

Foreword Copyright © 2006 by Arthur C. Clarke

First Published by
Thunder’s Mouth Press
An Imprint of Avalon Publishing G roup, Inc.
245 West 17th Street, 11th floor
New York, NY 10011

First printing, May 2006

This revised edition, Acadian, October 2008

All right s reserved.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available.

ISBN-10: 1-56025-854-3
ISBN-13: 978-1-56025-854-4
vi

Contents
List of Illustrations ............................................................................... vii
List of Abbreviations............................................................................. xii
Unveiling Jules Verne, a Century after his Death ......................................xiii
Introduction........................................................................................ xv
Prologue...............................................................................................1
C hapter 1. Island Adrift: 1828–35............................................................7
C hapter 2. C hantenay C astaway: 1836–39.............................................. 37
C hapter 3. Schoolboy Writer: 1840–46................................................... 61
C hapter 4. What Use are Girls?: 1846–48 ............................................... 79
C hapter 5. Law Student in the Literary Salons: 1848–51........................... 93
C hapter 6. Plays and Poverty: 1851–54................................................ 110
C hapter 7. Tribulations of a Frenchman in France: 1854–57 .................... 126
C hapter 8. Married, with Portfolio: 1857–59.......................................... 143
C hapter 9. Destiny Draws up her Skirts: 1860–63.................................. 168
C hapter 10. Golden Years: 1863–66..................................................... 188
C hapter 11. Whole New World: 1865–67............................................... 205
C hapter 12. By Land and Sea: 1867–69............................................. ...220
C hapter 13. Gathering Clouds: 1868–71............................................... 234
C hapter 14. End of Exploration: 1871–72.............................................. 248
C hapter 15. Last Paradise: 1872–79..................................................... 261
C hapter 16. Freedom, Music, and the Sea: 1876–80............................... 277
C hapter 17. Salvation through Work: 1879–83 ...................................... 289
C hapter 18. Home Front: 1882–90....................................................... 304
C hapter 19. Heading for the Hundredth: 1890–1905............................... 319
Epilogue: Communing with the Dead.................................................... 332
Appendices ....................................................................................... 335
Select Bibliography ............................................................................ 341
vii

List of Illustrations
1 Jules Verne’s Family Tree .....................................................................8
2 Pierre Verne, Jules’s father...................................................................9
3 Extract from the 1826 Census............................................................. 10
4 Feydeau Island, Showing Jules’s Earliest Surroundings........................... 11
5 Sophie Verne, Jules’s Mother .............................................................. 13
6 The Verne C oat of Arms ..................................................................... 14
7 A Turbaned Mascaron on Rue Kervégan, Feydeau.................................. 14
8 The Verne Home at Rue de C lisson...................................................... 15
9 Turner, Nantes from the Île Feydeau (ca.1828)..................................... 17
10 Jules’s Birth Certificate (1828) .......................................................... 18
11 Holy C ross, the Verne Parish C hurch, 1825–ca.1840 ............................ 19
12 The C hâteau de la Fuÿe.................................................................... 22
13 The Allotte de la Fuÿe C oat of Arms ................................................... 23
14 Extract from the 1829 Census, Showing Pierre Verne (last line) Living at 2
Quai Jean Bart..................................................................................... 24
15 François Tronson............................................................................. 25
16 Quai Jean Bart, the Verne Home, 1829–ca.1840.................................. 25
17 Turner, “Nantes from Feydeau Island”................................................ 26
18 The Tour du Bouffay and Carrefour de la Poulaillerie (1845).................. 27
19 Paul, Jules’s Brother ........................................................................ 28
20 Turner, Quai de la Fosse................................................................... 31
21 Turner, Pont de l’Aiguillon (1828)...................................................... 32
22 C laimed to be Jules Verne, Probably in Error ....................................... 33
23 Uncle C hâteaubourg ........................................................................ 34
24 Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Verne Home, ca.1840–87................... 35
25 Mme Sambin’s Boarding School......................................................... 38
26 Uncle Prudent’s House at La Guerche ................................................. 40
27 Pyroscaph and Fish Market on Feydeau Island..................................... 41
28 The Cover of Jules’s First Known Letter (1836).................................... 45
29 Henri and Edmond Tronson, Jules’s Cousins ........................................ 47
30 Caroline Tronson, Verne’s Cousin and First Love .................................. 48
31 “Acadiens”, Showing the View from C hantenay.................................... 50
32 Jules’s Home at C hantenay, ca.1837–48, Drawn by Christian Nagelschmidt,
Based on a Sketch by Raymond Ducrest ................................................. 51
33 The Exterior of the Verne House at C hantenay .................................... 53
34 St. Stanislas School......................................................................... 57
35 The Loire Downstream from Nantes ................................................... 58
36 Anna, Jules’s First Sister (Self-Portrait) .............................................. 62
37 Mathilde, Jules’s Second Sister.......................................................... 62
38 Marie, Jules’s Third Sister................................................................. 62
39 Extract from the 1846 Census........................................................... 62
40 Théâtre and Place Graslin................................................................. 63
41 Saint-Nicolas, the Verne Parish Church, ca.1840–87 ............................ 64
viii

42 Nantes, Showing Jules’s Successive Homes and Schools ....................... 67


43 Sophie with her Three Daughters (ca.1844)........................................ 72
44 The Collège Royal............................................................................ 73
45 Jules’s Classroom at the Collège Royal ............................................... 74
46 Aristide Hignard, Verne’s Friend and Collaborator................................. 75
47 Marie Tronson................................................................................. 84
48 Henri Garcet, Verne’s C ousin............................................................. 88
49 The Café Procope ............................................................................ 94
50 Adrien Talexy.................................................................................. 96
51 Alexandre Dumas fils, Verne’s Friend and C ollaborator ......................... 97
52 Alexandre Dumas père..................................................................... 99
53 Monte C risto................................................................................. 101
54 Verne at 22.................................................................................. 105
55 Jacques Arago .............................................................................. 106
56 Pierre C hevalier, Verne’s Publisher and Collaborator........................... 107
57 Verne’s Floorplan of his Apartment at Bonne Nouvelle (1851).............. 111
58 Boulevard du Temple (1838 or 1839)............................................... 115
59 The Lyric Theater, Verne’s Workplace............................................... 117
60 Verne at 25.................................................................................. 118
61 Verne in his Late 20s ..................................................................... 137
62 Honorine Verne, née de Viane......................................................... 138
63 Church Saint-Eugène ..................................................................... 144
64 Valentine, Verne’s Daughter ........................................................... 146
65 Suzanne, Verne’s Daughter............................................................. 146
66 Verne at about 29 ......................................................................... 150
67 The Paris Stock Exchange............................................................... 151
68 Massé.......................................................................................... 155
69 Great Britain, Showing the Journeys to Scotland in 1859 and America in 1867
....................................................................................................... 158
70 Liverpool in about 1859.................................................................. 159
71 Edinburgh .................................................................................... 160
72 Calton Hill .................................................................................... 161
73 Grassmarket................................................................................. 162
74 Central Scotland and the Southern Highlands, Showing the 1859 Journey163
75 Loch Katrine ................................................................................. 164
76 Ben Venue.................................................................................... 165
77 London and the Thames in about 1859............................................. 166
78 Northern Europe, Showing the Journeys to Norway in 1861, Scotland in 1879,
and Denmark in 1881......................................................................... 170
79 Verne’s Sketch of a C hâteau in Scandinavia (1861)............................ 172
80 Verne’s Sketch of Norway (1861) .................................................... 173
81 Michel, Jules’s Son, at about 11....................................................... 175
82 Marie Verne after her Marriage........................................................ 176
ix

83 The Extended Verne Family in 1861 (From Top to Bottom, L. to R.:) Jules,
Pierre, Marie, Anna, Alphonsine, Honorine, Amélie, Sophie, Alphonse, Henri and
Antoinette Garcet, Grandmother Masthie Verne, Suzanne, Valentine......... 177
84 Nadar .......................................................................................... 179
85 Jules Hetzel, Verne’s Publisher ........................................................ 180
86 The Manuscript of Backwards to Britain, with Verne’s Address in Hetzel’s Hand
....................................................................................................... 182
87 Nadar’s Géant............................................................................... 186
88 The Manuscript of Journey to the C enter of the Earth ......................... 193
89 Pierre Verne ................................................................................. 197
90 Verne’s House at Le Crotoy............................................................. 201
91 Le C rotoy Region........................................................................... 203
92 The Mediterranean ........................................................................ 206
93 The Great Eastern ......................................................................... 212
94 Fifth Avenue Hotel (1866) .............................................................. 214
95 Niagara Falls, from the American Side (1867) ................................... 216
96 Verne’s Sketch of Niagara Falls (1867)............................................. 217
97 Plan of St. Michel I ........................................................................ 230
98 St. Michel I, Drawn by Verne .......................................................... 230
99 Nellie Bly...................................................................................... 243
100 Boulevard Longueville, Verne’s Home, 1873–82 and 1900–05............ 250
101 The Map of the Western Atlantic Drawn by Verne for The C hancellor
(ca.1870) ......................................................................................... 253
102 The First Manuscript of Around the World........................................ 256
103 “C hênes verts,” Cap d’Antibes ....................................................... 262
104 The Second Manuscript of Hector Servadac (1876)........................... 264
105 The Second Manuscript of The Mysterious Island (1874)................... 266
106 Adolphe d’Ennery, Verne’s C ollaborator .......................................... 268
107 Verne at about 50........................................................................ 270
108 Verne at about 51........................................ 109 Verne in his Early 50s
....................................................................................................... 273
110 St. Michel II................................................................................ 278
111 St. Michel III............................................................................... 280
112 The Mediterranean, Showing the Journeys to North Africa in 1878 and to
North Africa and Italy in 1884.............................................................. 281
113 André Laurie, Verne’s Collaborator and Ghost-Writer ........................ 284
114 Michel at about 30....................................................................... 285
115 Jacques Offenbach, Adaptor of Verne’s Works.................................. 286
116 Verne in his Late 50s or 60s.......................................................... 288
117 Verne at about 70........................................................................ 293
118 The West of Scotland, Showing the Route Followed in The Green Ray and
Verne’s Near-identical 1879 Journey..................................................... 297
119 Fingal’s Cave .............................................................................. 298
120 Pass of Brander........................................................................... 299
121 Honorine (1880).......................................................................... 301
x

122 Rue C harles Dubois, Verne’s Home, 1882–1900............................... 305


123 Verne and Follet in the Garden at C harles Dubois............................. 306
124 Verne’s Study in Charles Dubois .................................................... 308
125 Verne in his 60s .......................................................................... 308
126 Sophie ....................................................................................... 315
127 The Verne C ouple and Michel (about 1894)..................................... 324
128 Jules and Honorine in about 1905.................................................. 329
xi

Acknowledgments
Thomas McCormick, Agnès Marcetteau, Christian Robin, Ian Thompson,
and above all Volker Dehs generously and constructively commented on
the draft of this book, which would not have been possible without the
love and support of Angel Lui.
This volume is dedicated to the memory of pioneers Jean Chesneaux,
Cécile Compère, Raymond Ducrest de Villeneuve, Charles-Noël Martin, and
François Raymond and to the far-flung camaraderie of devoted Verne
scholars: Daniel Compère, Volker Dehs, Arthur Evans, Piero Gondolo della
Riva, Jean-Michel Margot, Jean-Pierre Picot, Christian Robin, and Simone
Vierne.

Note on the Second Edition


The present edition, available online, follows the text of the first edition,
published by Thunder’s Mouth in 2006. However, errors have been cor-
rected, the endnotes converted to footnotes, and the book now has more
than 120 illustrations, many in color.
xii

List of Abbreviations
ADF Marguerite Allotte de la Fuÿe, Jules Verne
b. born
BB Jules Verne, Backwards to Britain
BSJV Bulletin de la Société Jules Verne
CNM Charles-Noël Martin, La Vie et l’oeuvre de Jules Verne (The Li-
fe and Works of Jules Verne)
Int. Entretiens avec Jules Verne (Interviews)
JD Joëlle Dusseau, Jules Verne
JJV Jean Jules-Verne, Jules Verne
JV Jules Verne
JVEST Jean-Michel Margot (ed.), Jules Verne en son temps (Jules
Verne in his Time)
Lemire Charles Lemire, Jules Verne
MCY “Memories of Childhood and Youth”
OD Olivier Dumas, Voyage à travers Jules Verne (Journey through
Jules Verne)
Poems Poésies inédites (Unpublished Poems)
PV Philippe Valetoux, Jules Verne: En mer et contre tous (Jules
Verne At Sea and at Odds)
RD Raymond Ducrest de Villeneuve’s untitled biography
St. M. Document in Verne’s hand listing his journeys on the St. Mi-
chel II and III
TI Théâtre inédit (Unpublished Plays)
xiii

Unveiling Jules Verne, a Century after his Death


Arthur C. Clarke

Jules Verne had already been dead for a dozen years when I was born. Yet I feel
strongly connected to him, and his works of science fiction had a major influence
on my own career. He is among the top five people I wish I could have met in
person.
Indeed, he and H. G. Wells are the two greatest names in science fiction—
between them, they established it as a distinctive literary genre. Although Verne
(1828–1905) and Wells (1866–1946) now seem to belong to different ages, their
careers actually overlapped; Verne was still alive when Wells published his finest
tales.
Verne lived through a period of such rapid invention and discovery. Major
technological breakthroughs—including the telegraph, railway, electricity, and the
telephone—happened during his lifetime. Many other possibilities, such as heav-
ier-than-air craft and sub-marines, were being discussed speculatively. Large
parts of the world, hitherto unchartered and unknown to the West, were explored
and documented.
But instead of merely chronicling such developments, which would have en-
gaged an ordinary writer for a lifetime, Verne wove them into works of fiction—
creating vivid scenarios and stories that have enthralled generations of readers.
A century after his death, he remains the most widely translated author in the
world, a distinction unlikely to be surpassed in the near future.
At the same time, as this painstakingly researched new biography shows,
Verne must rank as one of the most widely distorted, censored, and mistrans-
lated authors of all time. Dr. William Butcher, a scholar whose mastery of French
gave him rare insights, draws from hundreds of original manuscripts, archival
material, and other evidence to reconstruct an authentic story of the life and
work of Jules Verne. It contrasts with the familiar image of Verne we have grown
accustomed to.
For example, Butcher reveals how Verne’s own publisher, Pierre-Jules Het-
zel, excised large chunks of the author’s original writing to suit some political and
social interests. Equally disturbing is the fact that most books of Jules Verne
available in English have been poor translations—and to make matters worse,
generations of critics have debated and judged the merits and demits of the au-
thor without ever accessing the originals (either published French versions or the
original manuscripts).
This book also reminds us how prolific and versatile Verne was: he wrote some
200 works, of which only a few can be categorized as science fiction. Many were
adventure stories, traveler’s tales or social commentary, even though we have to
acknowledge that Verne is best known for what we now consider science fiction.
In an avid reader’s mind, however, these genres blur easily. The only real
question is whether it’s a good story. I have always believed that the primary
xiv

function of any story is to entertain—not to instruct or to preach. (Every writer


should remember Sam Goldwyn’s words: “If you’ve gotta message, use Western
Union.”) Promoting a particular scientific concept or technology or a utopian
worldview should be the secondary aim of a science fiction story. This offers us a
test to discern good fiction. The acid test of any story comes when you re-read it,
preferably after a lapse of some years. If it’s good, the second reading is as en-
joyable as the first. If it’s great, the second reading is more enjoyable. And if it’s
a masterpiece, it will improve with every reading. Needless to say, there are very
few masterpieces—in or out of science fiction.
From the Earth to the Moon (1865) is one Verne story that I have found to
have enduring entertainment value—even if some of its scientific premises were
slightly dubious, especially the idea of shooting people to space from a mammoth
cannon. It is difficult to say how seriously Verne took this idea, because so much
of the story is facetiously written. Probably he believed that if such a large gun
could be built, it might be capable of sending a projectile to the moon, but it
seems unlikely that he seriously imagined that any of the occupants would have
survived the shock of takeoff.
However, in several other respects Verne demonstrated remarkable abilities
of prescience. His chosen location for the cannon gun was not far from C ape C a-
naveral, Florida. He was the first to conceive the free return trajectory—the idea
that it would be possible for a projectile to go around the moon and then return
to earth. Upon such return, Verne was again the first to suggest the use of water
(oceans) as a medium for landing one’s space ship in—the idea of splashdown.
As I covered the Apollo moon landings for CBS television in the late 1960s and
early 1970s, I couldn’t help thinking over and over again how Verne had antici-
1
pated a good part of the overall scenario a century ahead of anyone else.
Verne was a master in taking us on intriguing journeys to far corners of our
planet—and beyond. In Jules Verne: The Definitive Biography, William Butcher
takes us on an equally interesting journey through the life of the author which
has been hidden beneath layers of “fiction” and misconception. I am confident
that this book will help set the record straight, while enhancing our understand-
ing and appreciation of one of the greatest story-tellers of all time.
Arthur C . Clarke
Colombo, Sri Lanka
25 February 2006

1
For interesting discussions on many other ideas and inventions first imag-
ined by science fiction writers, see the website Technovelgy,
http://www.technovelgy.com/index.htm.
xv

Introduction
“Joolsvurn” is an invisible man. The most translated writer in the world
(JVEST 43) remains the opposite of a classic: a household name from
Taipo to Tucson, but absent from the school curricula and histories of lit-
erature. The English-language encyclopedias peddle mistruths, and “his”
truncated and illiterate messes, sold as “Complete and Unabridged” in
America, are dysfunctional, howler-full monsters. Although his intelli-
gence, technique, and general readability have created hypnotic page-
turners, some booksellers seem unaware he actually wrote novels.
But why is this a problem? Why study the life of Jules Verne (1828–
1905)? Quite simply, to understand his influence on the modern world,
arguably as great as anyone’s. Verne is one of the most read of all writ-
ers—nine times as much as the next Frenchman. He invented a new liter-
ary genre, although not the one associated with his name. “Masterpiece”
is the most frequent descriptor among his peers, the writers. The names
he invented, Nemo, Fogg, and Lidenbrock, dominated the box office from
2003 to 2008. But still their creator is ignored, his life a black box.
The crux of the matter lies in his reputation. In America and Britain
there has been a total misunderstanding of Verne’s work. He did not write
for children; he did not produce science fiction; and he was not pro-
technology. Evidence for each point will be hammered home throughout
this volume.
Of his approximately 200 works, three are world famous. In Journey
to the Center of the Earth (1864)1 Professor Lidenbrock and Axel enter the
crater of Snaefells in Iceland and head down through the successive strata
of geological time. They discover a lost world containing the body of a
white man, live sea-monsters, and a giant figure herding giant masto-
dons, before riding a volcanic eruption back up to the surface.
Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas (1869)—to give the correct
title—presents the enigmatic Captain Nemo through his obtuse prisoner,
Dr. Aronnax. The two commune with the ruins of Atlantis, dive below the
ice to discover the South Pole, fight off massed giant squid and Papuans,
and plunge into the Maelstrom. But much of the interest comes from the
anguish gripping the somber captain, and at the end a shocked Aronnax
concludes that his aim in life is to go around sinking ships. (The published

1
Dates of works are those of beginning of first publication, usually in serial
form; where works did not come out in Verne’s lifetime, the date of composition
will be indicated instead.
xvi

versions of the works will be summarized here; the manuscripts are very
different.)
In Around the World in Eighty Days (1872), Fogg—stiff, repressed,
British—bets the Reform he can circle the globe in the stipulated time.
With an irrepressible Frenchman and an Indian beauty he traverses dense
jungle, explores the Hong Kong of Jackie Chan’s ancestors, shoots a few
Sioux, and burns his boat for fuel—only to get back five minutes late. Re-
alizing, however, that he has gained a day by traveling eastwards, he
makes a triumphant entrance to his club.
Five other works written in the same decade are of similar interest.
Paris in the Twentieth Century (1860–63) is set in 1960, complete with
cars, faxes, pollution, and Americanization of the language and lifestyle,
but without the capital city’s culture and soul; the poet hero fails in both
love and work and perishes from cold, hunger, and neglect. This anti-
science fiction novel was unequivocally rejected by Verne’s publisher, Het-
zel; it was translated into English 1996, when it became the most suc-
cessful French novel ever in the United States.
The Adventures of Captain Hatteras (1864), with its poetic settings
and riveting authenticity, features a Briton’s quest for the North Pole. Set-
ting off via Baffin Bay, Hatteras’s expedition experiences hunger, frostbite,
and disease. After various tragedies, the survivors discover an open Polar
Sea and sail on. At the point where the meridians finally meet, there
surges an island volcano in full eruption. The captain plunges into the cra-
ter to reach the absolute Pole, but his American rival drags him back. His
failure drives Hatteras mad.
The good-humored From the Earth to the Moon (1865) describes
preparations for a projectile launch from Florida, monitored from a giant
telescope in the Rockies. However, the target is missed and the novel
ends with the Americans lost in orbit around the moon.
“Edom” (date of composition unknown), a dazzling story opening in
Baja California, features Atlantis and a twenty-first-century humanity,
which slowly realizes it is just part of a recurrent cycle of destruction and
rebirth: almost the only real science fiction signed by Verne.2
In The Mysterious Island (1874), five Northern balloonists escape the
Civil War to land on a Pacific island. They proceed to colonize it while mar-

2
The science fiction sections of this story are probably not by Jules Verne,
but by his son Michel. The definition of science fiction employed here is “a genre
of fiction based on imagined future technological or scientific advances, major
environmental or social changes, etc., and frequently portraying time travel and
life on other planets” (Oxford English Reference Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford Uni-
versity Press, 2003)).
xvii

veling at a series of providential events. Eventually they find a stranded


Nautilus and a dying Nemo, renouncing his anarchistic activism for good
deeds, piety, and nationalism, just before the island blows up.
Our understanding of Verne inevitably passes through generations of
interpretations and cultural by-products. Unfortunately, the majority of
works in English are doubly fakes, betrayals of censored works. Not one
word of chapter 1, for instance, of the most popular English Journey to the
Center of the Earth corresponds to the French original; and a majority of
editions of Twenty Thousand Leagues 3 abridge the novel by one-fourth.
Nor would the surviving sections pass muster in a TRAN 0001 tutorial. In
English the hero visits the “disagreeable territories of Nebraska” or “jumps
over” part of an island; reference is made to “prunes” or “Galilee”; and
Napoléon dies broken-hearted in “St. Helen’s,” Lancashire. Verne himself
wrote of “the Badlands,” “blowing up,” “plums,” “Galileo,” and “St. He-
lena” in the Atlantic!4 It is these invented, bowdlerized hack jobs that
films and critical commentary have nearly always been based on. For fur-
ther discussion of the problems with the English Verne, the reader is re-
ferred to the nine books I have published on the matter.5
In France Verne is the author generating the largest number of liter-
ary analyses, but in the United States and Britain he is not taken seri-
ously, on the pretext that he is a science fiction writer. And yet this opin-
ion seems manifestly absurd in view of such systematically low-tech or
nontech works as Five Weeks in a Balloon, Hatteras, Around the World,
and The Mysterious Island. The result is that for the English-speaking
world most of Verne’s authentic series of Extraordinary Journeys remain
unknown, his life largely virgin territory.
Admittedly, 60 books and 3,000 articles have been written about his
life. But I would claim that nearly everything remains to be done. Many
biographical studies have been invented, derivative, or unduly biased by
Verne’s reputation.
My reservation about even the best of recent scholarship is ultimately
methodological. Nearly all of it has appeared in French or German and ad-

3
Abbreviated titles of the most frequently cited works will be used, as indi-
cated in the Bibliography. References to Verne’s works will be by chapter (as ro-
man numerals, with part number if any (e.g., II xxxix)) to allow use of any edi-
tion.
4
C ited by Walter James Miller, “Jules Verne in America,” in Twenty Thou-
sand Leagues under the Sea, Walter James Miller (ed.) (New York: Crowell,
1976); vii–xxii; detected by myself at proof stage of Backwards to Britain.
5
Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Self (New York: St Martin’s Press,
1990) and the eight critical editions listed in the Bibliography.
xviii

dresses the intellectual history of Verne’s writings but neglecting his eve-
ryday life. To understand the scope of the omission, consider the following
list, almost Vernian in its length.
No biography has traced Verne’s family tree back to the fifteenth cen-
tury. No biography in English or French has analyzed his early environ-
ment or his finances. No English or French biography has identified his
best friends or traced his path to kindergarten, to his grandmother’s, or to
church. No one has mentioned that his family was heavily involved in the
slave trade. No one has listed his visits to the English-speaking countries.
No one has cataloged the attic rooms he lived in.
No English or French biography has mentioned the most important
source of information, a full-length treasure trove about the writer’s early
life by Raymond Ducrest, mostly brought up in Verne’s home, of which
only one copy survives.6
No biography has benefited from a unique, Borgesian collection of
every article ever written on Verne, lovingly collected and cataloged over
five decades by a Swiss American.7
No biographer to date has studied every work published by Verne.8
But this is still only half the story. Although Jules Verne will concen-
trate on the man himself, the writing cannot be ignored. Verne’s repeated
passing off and plagiarism started as private matters, but ended up in
court. The many discoveries in recent years have reversed readings of the
Extraordinary Journeys and overturned ideas about the writer’s life.
One example is Verne’s autobiographical works. While A Floating City,
about his trip to New York, the Hudson, and Niagara, has been freely
available since 1870, and “Memories of Childhood and Youth” since 1974,
Backwards to Britain appeared only in 1992, and “Joyous Miseries of Three
Travelers in Scandinavia” in 2003.
Other dramatic discoveries include the writer’s correspondence with
his family, laden with ejaculatory and scatological imagery and banned
worldwide; 1,400 letters to the Hetzels, integrally published only in 2006;

6
Raymond Ducrest de Villeneuve, unpublished, untitled illustrated type-
script [1930], the original being kept in the City Library of Nantes (MJV B 233).
Dehs lists the biography in his Guide (79). The works mentioned briefly in this
introduction are fully referenced in the Bibliography.
7
Jean-Michel Margot has generously sent me a copy of his unpublished
catalog, an impeccable work of scholarship analyzing and thematically classifying
all 10,000 known documents about Verne. Dehs’s 2005 biography was also
based on a wide knowledge of material published to date.
8
If only the book Salon of 1857 (1857), discovered in 2006.
xix

and many interviews with American and British journalists. (None of these
volumes, I’m afraid, is available in English.)
Jules Verne provides the first analysis of these discoveries in English.
Nevertheless, I would claim that this breakthrough pales in significance
beside one astonishing fact: the novels summarized above do not in real-
ity represent what was written. The texts hacked about by the English
“translators” already betrayed the novelist, for the works devoured by
hundreds of millions were twisted and corrupted by the French publisher.
Scholars have pored over every draft of quite minor literary pieces,
but not those of the only universal Frenchman. Verne’s manuscripts have
unfortunately remained about as accessible as the Chinese Politburo min-
utes, meaning that only a few sheets from the most famous works have
been studied to date.
The good news is that I have obtained samizdat copies (becoming the
first person to see the set since Verne). One aspect here will therefore be
the inception of the major works, how their plots and meanings evolved,
or rather regressed, thanks to Hetzel. The apolitical, nonviolent, and de-
sexed image of the Extraordinary Journeys is erroneous, as I shall show,
draft by adulterated draft, comma by transmogrified comma. Previous
studies of Verne have neglected this systematic censorship to their peril:
they have invariably interpreted not what he wrote, but the expurgated,
sometimes meaningless, versions that Hetzel published under his name.
In teasingly brief summary, then, we shall see how, originally, the
United States attempted to muscle in on the North Pole, Hatteras dueled
to the death with his American rival on an ice floe and committed suicide
at the very Pole; how Nemo was a Polish noble revenging the Russian
rape of his daughters; how Phileas Fogg‘s first faltering steps, backdated
34 years, are governed by the expressiveness of his lower body (this is
the expurgated version!); how other famous works lost entire chapters,
including a utopian underground city; how the dying Nemo remained free
and defiant to the end; and how the futuristic aspects of “Edom” were not
by Jules Verne.
I do realize that these mostly exclusive revelations undermine both
Verne’s established image in the English-speaking countries and many
previous critical studies of his works. General reaction may be much in-
dignant denial. All I can do is repeat that the image is largely based on an
illusion and that the works that have marked generations are not the ones
the author wrote. The only intellectually honest course is to quote the au-
thentic Verne—before he was savaged by the publisher, betrayed by the
translators, ignored by the critics, and travestied by Hollywood.
xx

In both this and the central focus of Verne’s everyday life, my ap-
proach will accordingly be evidence-driven. At the risk of neglecting the
metaphysics, ontology, and hermeneutics beloved of Continental scholars,
my perspective will be modestly Anglo-Saxon, asking such resolutely un-
theoretical questions as when?, who?, what?, and how much?
I will thus be looking at the forgotten nitty-gritty of the novelist’s life:
his appearance, his schoolmates, the shape of his bedroom, what he ate
for breakfast, who he slept with, who he fell out with or was sued by, the
fibs he told, how he got to work, how he got on with his bosses, how
much he made, what he did on his days off, what his sexual fantasies
were, where he holidayed, what he read, and whether he was a good hus-
band and father.
Two brief examples will illustrate my down-to-earth approach:
whether Verne was homosexual; and why he was obsessed with all things
Scottish. Bisexuality certainly occurs in Verne. His father’s excessive se-
verity, including the beatings; his timidity with strangers and yearning for
reclusion; his relationship with probable homosexual Aristide Hignard at
school, on both major foreign trips, and during collaboration on seven vol-
umes; the innuendo to Hetzel about oral sex; the evidence of the series of
Extraordinary Journeys, with an absence of desire for women and indeed
of attractive women, but with much obscene ribaldry between the men;
the probability that Verne fathered only one child—all implies that a ho-
mosexual streak may have permeated his character.
Verne had a noble Scottish ancestor, although no one has looked up
his address. On his first recorded foreign trip, he describes waking up to a
view of the volcanoes of Edinburgh Castle crag and Arthur’s Seat; never
having seen a mountain or lake before, “the terrible poetry of old Scot-
land” bowls him over. For the next 30 years, a litany of Walter Scott,
glens, bens, and eruptions will flow from his amazed pen. But to date, no
biographer has identified the Edinburgh lass he flirted with or the Western
Isles, lochs, and mountains he swooned at, marking not only his three
Scottish books but his entire life and works.
My mistrust of theory and generalization will impact on both the
structure and emphasis of the argument. The crux of the matter is that
what is true in 1840 may be false by 1900. The boisterous young provin-
cial heading for the capital bears little resemblance to the conformist
Amiens citizen at the peak of his fame. His underlying character may have
stayed the same, for kindness and gentleness emerge from interview after
interview even during the darkest years. But his behavior and views show
little continuity. His attitudes toward Britain and America, for instance,
veered from the adulatory to the libelous. At some stage in the 1870s,
xxi

then, Verne’s output and mood changed dramatically, whether because of


his wife and family, his move from Paris, a crisis in the writing itself, his
health, or the disastrous defeat by the Germans.
The dark decades did, nevertheless, contain enough drama to fill sev-
eral volumes. Michel was judged insane by his father and imprisoned.
Verne’s favorite nephew shot him, crippling him for life. The numerous
works published after Verne’s death puzzled many readers, for they con-
tained radical political, philosophical, and scientific ideas, the reason being
that Jules’s son Michel wrote much of them.
It is clear, in sum, that Verne’s life remains unknown in English. His
reputation, even during his lifetime, already suffered, for his works could
not express social, political, and religious views—if only because his char-
acters were forbidden to visit France. Conundrum: Which world-famous
writer never described his home country but set works in Russia, China,
and America, only for each of them to be unavailable in the respective
country?9
My central aim here will in sum be to combine research on Verne’s
life with the evidence from the works, especially the all-important manu-
scripts. I will thus show what sort of man Jules was, what went on inside
his head, what really made him tick.
This book represents the sum of decades of living and dreaming
Verne, dragging family and friends into “his” châteaus, over his mountains
and down his rivers, and arguing his sexuality and politics over morning
congee.
The result will amaze those who know Verne only by hearsay.

9
Michel Strogoff (1876) was not published in Russia until the twentieth cen-
tury; Tribulations of a Chinese in China (1879) appeared in C hina only in 2003
(with the political parts removed); Humbug did not appear in English until 1992.
1

Prologue
“I can’t stand fun any more. My character has changed beyond recogni-
tion, and I’ll never get over what I’ve been through.”1
On 9 March 1886 the man who would write these bitter words had
had it all. His books had brought him global fame and fortune, he had two
new grandchildren, and a science fiction story had appeared under his
name for the first time.2
Yet within minutes his existence would be shattered. His nephew,
perhaps the person he felt closest to, tried to kill him, crippling him for life
and making him writhe in pain for years. A week after the attack, the
friend died who had rescued him from poverty and made possible all his
masterpieces. A year later his mother passed away in turn, undoubtedly
affected by the treacherous assault; but, heartbreakingly, he felt too ill to
attend either funeral. To cap it all, his inspiration failed and his writing spi-
raled irreversibly downward.
The murder attempt did not come as a complete surprise, since eve-
rything had been in turmoil recently. His family’s hereditary insanity had
emerged repeatedly. He had again and again refused his son’s crazy busi-
ness schemes and paid off his womanizing debts. He had sold his beloved
steam yacht to a Balkan prince.
The latter decision was certainly a mistake. Travel had obsessed him
since earliest childhood. Travel transcended a post-Napoleonic, Prussian-
ized France raging impotently at her dismemberment. Travel prevented
the intrusions of his wife who did not read his books and had little idea
why he wrote them. Travel created an ideal community of like-minded
males living in closest intimacy. Travel had been, above all, his raison
d’être ever since the first stunning bestsellers. His writing penetrated vir-
gin territory, spiritually commingled with the globe’s last unbesmirched
realms; it avoided overt psychological analysis but revealed character
through small-group interaction and exotic shared challenges. Giving it all
up constituted personal and professional suicide.

1
In a letter to Paul of 20 June 1894.
2
“In the Year 2889”; the story was in fact written by his son Michel.
2

He abandoned Phileas Fogg desperately burning his boat, Captain


Nemo defying the hurricanes, the teeming Polar Sea monsters, the killing
underground dinosaurs, the South Pacific dream, the Atlanteans, the care-
free space travel, the fresh Scottish lass, and the ravishing Indian beauty.
He exchanged his yacht—the flesh of his flesh, his castle, and his last link
to Brittany—for tax bills, club routine, and sandy deckchairs. Henceforth
his perspective would be a smoky railway tunnel in an ugly industrial town
and his wife’s increasingly hamsterlike cheeks.
So the balding figure with the sagging left eye who had scoured the
Union Club’s periodicals that afternoon felt drained and stranded, half the
man he’d once been. Perhaps he even helped bring on the tragic events,
to provide a material pretext for his black despair, to slash some way out,
any way out, of the failure of his life.
His mood was not good, in sum, as he turned right into Rue Charles
Dubois at 5:15 that wintry Tuesday. He still had hale and hearty skin,
crinkled around the warm, affectionate eyes. With his navy, almost ankle-
length overcoat, circular, snow-white beard, peaked cap, and slightly
bowed legs, he could pass for a captain still lusting for a sea-going breeze.
The bare trees threatened slightly in the fading light, and the heavy
houses betrayed the harmony of his half-classical, half-marine childhood
dreams. How could he have swapped salt for soot, exoticism for comfort?
Thriving as he did on adversity, had all the success removed some vital
spark? He only knew the lethargy of his brain, its muddiness, its gravity.
Where were the heady fantasies that used to come bucketing out? Now he
had to plan everything, force himself a little, reorganize and rehash a
great deal.
At least his four-story house, with the spreading servants’ quarters
and airy reception room, displayed fanciful touches. But was the cobbled
courtyard too barren, the circular tower too folly-like? Why didn’t the gar-
dener do something about the ivy strangling the trees? At least he’d get a
warm reception from Follet, his jet-black spaniel, bounding out of her
kennel, tail lolloping. So was it Honorine producing his dejection? She was
certainly not the helpmate he’d dreamed of in the early days.
He was following his neighbor Gustave Fréson, not even hailing him,
and dejectedly opening the front gate, when he heard an explosion to his
left.1 A carnival was in full swing and he thought it just a firecracker. Had

1
This account derives from a large number of sources, including: Verne’s
own recollections as reported by interviewers (Int. 117, 179); [9 Mar. 86] and
[10 Mar. 86] to Hetzel fils; Volker Dehs, “En 1886,” BSJV 118:32–37; Norbert
Percereau, “Le Destin de Gaston Verne,” BSJV 155:4–52; and the contemporary
newspapers, especially L’Univers illustré of 20 March 1886, London Times of 11
3

he subliminally noticed the stone doorframe spitting a fragment? In any


case another blast came—and then a searing, bone-shattering pain as
metal slammed into his ankle-length boot and crunched deep into his left
shin. A cry came: “You bastard!” He bent to investigate the ankle. Even
now, despite the unbearable pain, he maintained control. He shouted to
Fréson “Stop him!” and pointed to a young man only 15 feet away. He
loped agonizingly to the assassin, who was still shouting something.
With a heart-stopping shock, he recognized his favorite nephew!
His heart still beat madly as he observed Gaston’s dusty shoes, di-
sheveled hair, manic gleam, and shiny new revolver. He loved him. He
treasured his seriousness, so unlike his son’s frivolity and rashness. He
had marveled at his high-powered job in Paris, due if truth be told to his
own string-pulling.
A one-stripe policeman had appeared out of thin air. Gaston simply
stood there like an automaton, arms hanging. The three men began to
maneuver him into the courtyard, using reassuring body language. Only
then did they enquire whether he might not wish to hand over the gun for
safe keeping.
Verne’s mind searched for reasons. With “the dreamy mouse,” as he
called him, he’d shared tempests and moments of tremendous happiness.
Together they’d seen his adored Edinburgh and transcendental Western
Isles, then, two years later, England, Holland, and Denmark.
He feverishly went over Gaston’s nervous breakdown of several
months ago, as well as his ravings about fighting duels to get his own
back and giving the slip to the policeman following him everywhere. And
above all he remembered their terrible arguments over the last few
months. The nephew’s motive had to be revenge for the “family affairs of
such sensitivity that I am unable to divulge them,” as Gaston told the
chief of police that evening.
And then it was over. He forgot his responsibilities, his surroundings,
everything, to concentrate on the volcanic pain erupting from his ankle.
His whole being confronted the stellar sensation, sharp at the center and
throbbing far up his leg. As he yielded to its invasion, his body pumped
compensating fluid that made his other limbs glow with strength.
Afterward he forgot the sequence of events. Had Gaston fallen into
the arms of Aunt Marie and his pretty cousin Suzanne? How long before
Gaston was carted off to the central police station? Before the diagnosis

March 1886, and Journal d’Amiens. (The system of abbreviated references to let-
ters by date is explained in note 13 to chapter 2 below.)
Throughout these notes, references separated by semicolons refer to dis-
tinct ideas in the text, those by commas to the same idea.
4

that his wound wasn’t serious? Before he sank gratefully into the oblivion
of the first, botched, operation? Before he realized the bullet could never
be extracted and that he was crippled for life?
In his few lucid moments between the ravings and fevers, the bleed-
ings and infected suppurations, the ether and morphine, he considered the
world’s press, baying for news. He decided on maximum damage control.
The indictment was “attempted murder.” Everyone knew Gaston had
planned it carefully: escaping his aunt in Paris, buying a train ticket for
Dover, but alighting at Amiens to pace up and down outside, with six
seven-millimeter bullets throbbing in his weapon.
But what motive should be given? Most plausible seemed a refusal to
protect Gaston from his enemies or give him money for England. The rest
of the story read like a crime passionnel, with its unstable cocktail of re-
sentment and rage, money and passion, illicit desires and unmentionable
acts. Best to muddy the waters and lie if need be. He would invent a con-
versation between Gaston and himself before the shooting. He would
cover up that the nephew had bought the gun that morning, that he had
aimed between his stomach and his private parts, that he had shot to kill.
He would cite absurd, contradictory motives supposedly given: to draw at-
tention to his suitability for the French Academy or to send him to heaven.
So determined were the writer and his family to hush it all up that
they silenced the papers, prevented all legal action, and needlessly con-
fined Gaston Verne to a foreign asylum for the next 52 years.
So who was the victim? And what has he to do with us, from a
different time, space, language, and culture?
Jules Verne, nineteenth-century French author, wrote about 200
works, the majority never published in English. It is those like Journey to
the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, and Twenty Thou-
sand Leagues that make him such a fascinating, but opaque, figure. Their
accumulated effect on humanity is immeasurable. Harry Potter, Frodo
Baggins, or Hercule Poirot may at any moment outperform Phileas Fogg or
Captain Nemo. Prince Hamlet or Don Quixote get longer entries in Britan-
nica. But over time Verne has outsold Shakespeare and indeed almost
everyone. No individual has spoken in his own voice, in signed works, to
so many human beings.
If you mention these facts to literature teachers or encyclopedia edi-
tors, they reply with “children’s writer,” “poor style,” “past-his-sell-by-
date inventor,” or, if East Coast–educated, “genre fiction.” But they offer
no information about the books or the man. The remarkable phenomenon,
then, unfathomable once you start to think about it, is the extent to which
the man who shaped our world has escaped notice. He hails from nowhere
5

in particular, has no sound bite in the public consciousness, remains un-


recognizable without his first name. He had a talent unparalleled among
the 15 billion people who have lived for writing universally appealing sto-
ries—and for concealing his own fame.
If we look at his scores of photographs, thousands of letters, scores
of interviews, handful of autobiographical pieces, Verne shows a strong
character, a distinctive mode of behavior, a unique way of life. Like all
geniuses, he both inhabited his time and transcended it. Unlike many of
his compatriots, he was not straightaway identifiable as French. Like many
writers, he channeled much of his personality back into his books. Unlike
most famous men, he kept himself to himself.
The cover-up of the murder attempt, then, epitomized Verne’s efforts
to hide his private persona from posterity. This book will destroy his ef-
forts.
To fully understand the ins and outs of the tragic affair that so cate-
gorically ruined the life of a unique writer, and for a brief moment illumi-
nated the man inside, we need to go back to the beginning. Only by sys-
tematically “gathering truth from facts” (Deng Xiao-Ping), can we under-
stand the insouciant boy and the tragic man he fathered.
7

Chapter 1. Island Adrift: 1828–35


In 1826 France was a constitutional monarchy. After the Napoleonic esca-
pades, economic stability and artistic creativity were helping the cultural
center of the world to find her feet again.
Nantes could be considered the Berwick or Berlin of Brittany: the
French invasion had left this capital stranded from its cultural hinterland,
with only islands of Breton speakers remaining. The city had an important
middle class: conventional, complacent, and closed to outsiders, trying
hard to ignore the rural discharge and exotic whiffs all around. Memories
were fading of the Boudeuse and the Méduse, respectively the ships of the
first French circumnavigation and horrifying acts of live cannibalism.
Nantes still occupied the apex of the triangular trade—importing tropical
raw materials, exporting trinkets, and moving slaves sideways—that, from
this city alone, had dumped a half-million Africans in the West Indies and
Indian Ocean. But with Haitian independence in 1804 and silt in the Loire,
the triangle seemed increasingly wobbly. Many of the vessels were now
square-sailed barges trans-shipping the tobacco and raw sugar up from
Paimboeuf. For the moment, though, the prohibition of “black ebony,” as
the merciless slavers called their stock in trade, had merely increased
Nantes’s monopoly and hence prices.
It was this colorful setting, built on a trade already abhorrent to an
enlightened few, that Jules Verne saw when he first opened his eyes. He
also breathed in an illustrious family heritage.
“Verne” means alder tree, as in the family coat of arms. The first re-
corded ancestor was one Vital Verne, a sixteenth-century shoemaker in
the Massif Central. His ultimate forebears may have been either Italian or
from Le Vernet, in Thélis la Combe commune, a little downstream from La
Versanne.1 Starting with Vital’s son, the descendants were invariably law-
yers, although another branch founded the famous Banque Vernes. After
an eighteenth-century Antoine, senior legal advisor, came a Jean-Gabriel,
seigneur of Cormantin and Uxelles, and his cousin Gabriel, magistrate in
Provins, south of Paris.

1
Régis de Véron de La Combe, “En Remontant la Loire,” BSJV 150:36–37.
8

1 Jules Verne’s Family Tree


9

2 Pierre Verne,
Jules’s Father
10

Gabriel’s third child, Pierre Verne, spent a


few months as an advocate in Paris, then set-
tled in Nantes to join his long-established
uncle. In late 1826 this half-Parisian bought, on
credit, into Monsieur Paqueteau‘s practice on 2
Quai Jean Bart (JJV 2). Looking out onto Fey-
deau Island, the building stood at the corner
where the Loire absorbed the Erdre, which
François I called “the most beautiful river in
France.”2 Despite the virtual closed shop
operated by the local legal establishment,
Pierre aimed to build the best law practice in
Nantes. His social background and literary taste
helped, and he had the gravitas. He began to
expand the practice’s client list into the
lucrative marine business, dominated by the
slave traders.

3 Extract from the 1826 Census

In an oil painting, Monsieur Verne appears


unexceptional beside a small rolltop desk, with
perfect order presiding over his paper cutter
and blotter. Later photographs reveal that the
lawyer is tall and ascetic and likes to spread his
arms proprietorially. Longish light brown hair
and a devotion to paperback fiction mitigate his
balding pate, grim face, and thin lips.
Pierre’s grandson described him as “highly
intelligent, pleasant, and witty, a passionate
music lover, the life and soul of our family get-
togethers” (JJV 2). His great-grandson
remembered “a good and charming man under
a slightly severe appearance . . . A respected
legal expert, an erudite scholar, and a fine
spiritual poet, he liked to discuss science and
recent discoveries” (JJV 2). He was remarkably
liberal and open-minded in some ways, and
Jules dubbed him “a veritable saint.”3

2
Reported on http://www.nantesmetropole.fr/.
3
In a letter to Verne’s publisher of 4 November 1871.
11

But saints are impossible to live with. Pierre was also a strict Jan-
senist, a stickler for detail, and a puritan who despised the poets’ lifestyles
(JJV 2–3). Although endowed with great charisma and talent, generosity
and tolerance were not Pierre’s fortes.
According to the family tradition, one fine day the lawyer was walking
under the cropped elms of La Petite Hollande, the triangular garden at the
tip of Feydeau Island.

4 Feydeau Island, Showing Jules’s Earliest Surroundings

In front of him spread a sandy bathing beach, blue-sailed fishing boats,


and the oceangoing port. But a slim, vivacious woman captured his atten-
tion instead, with green eyes, reddish-gold hair, and the demure look of
the better classes (ADF 8).4 After the vision had vanished, he reportedly
learned that Sophie Allotte de la Fuÿe was 25 years old but still not mar-
ried. (We are forced here to follow the often unreliable family biographer;
all references including “ADF” should put us on our guard.) The two were

4
Marguerite Pichelin (1875–1959) was the daughter-in-law of Maurice Al-
lotte, Sophie’s nephew.
12

introduced and duly fell in love, the only surviving tidbit being that Sophie
joked she was good at making cakes and jam. Pierre wrote in his best
handwriting, asking for her hand (ADF 75), and they married on 17 Feb-
ruary 1827. Was it urgent? In any case, the wedding took place without
most of Pierre’s family, five days away in Provins (ADF 10).
Sophie, without profession, came from Morlaix and was gentle, gay,
and superimaginative. Following an intensively Breton education, she took
Catholic devotion to extremes (JJV 3). Whether one was considered
Breton by “real” locals resembled being a genuine Scot or Hong Konger,
the hardliners using a mix of ill-defined criteria like blood, birth, and up-
bringing to exclude anyone they didn’t appreciate. Like Gaelic or Canton-
ese, the language was of little currency but central to the myth. Morlaix
itself was synonymous with the tragic French-speaking Acadians, brutally
sent “home” from British North America before being dispersed to Louisi-
ana.
13

5 Sophie Verne, Jules’s Mother


14

Sophie’s father, Augustin (b. 1768), ran the indirect taxation system
in Nantes but had previously been manager of Huelgoat Forge; the family
went back, via Sophie’s slave-trading grandfather and military and naval
ancestors, to a Daniel Allotte, Sieur de la Fuÿe. Both families in fact over-
flowed with nobles, including seigneurs de Montbel, Chignet de Cham-
prenard, de la Perrière, de la Dantèque, and du Sapt, as well as many
humble de’s that at least indicated an aspiration towards nobility. Pierre
was himself an écuyer (member of the gentry), his arms emblazoned on a
seal passed down since time immemorial (RD 2). All the relatives led
prosperous existences: the four parents were to live to an average of 86.

6 The Verne Coat of A rms

In an oil painting symmetrical to Pierre’s, again painted by her artist


brother-in-law, Sophie appears thoughtful beside a keyboard, hands at
awkward angles and dress scraping as she leans forward. But in another,
ten years later, a country lass wears a simple shawl, straggly hair, and an
expression mixing sadness, kindliness, and wryness. Her one surviving
letter shows affection and naivety, together with mountains of religiosity.

7 A Turbaned Mascaron on Rue Kervégan, Feydeau


15

8 The Verne Home at Rue de Clisson

Despite his family’s extensive landholdings, Pierre claimed to be


badly off and reportedly moved in with the bride’s parents, Augustin and
Dame Sophie Allotte de la Fuÿe (b. 1774) (ADF 9). However, the 1826
census shows him already renting, and inhabiting, half of the fourth floor
of 4 Rue de Clisson, for FF 200 a month (about $600 in modern-day val-
ues). Did the couple, then, cohabit before marriage, or was it Sophie that
moved in, together with her parents? With four main rooms plus a study
and attic above, the apartment was finely furnished, boasting arched
doors and elaborate parquet (ADF 10). On the walls hung stern portraits
of Sophie’s grandfathers, a Feydeau shipowner and a mariner who had
braved the Arctic (ADF 11). However, Augustin signally failed to live up to
their scrutiny, for his mother had died bearing him, his business ventures
kept failing, and he was always away gambling and womanizing. A few
months later he moved out for good.5

5
Dekiss, Jules Verne l’enchanteur, 11.
16

No. 4 stood on the corner of Rue Kervégan, the broad avenue bisect-
ing Feydeau, built by the great slave traders, no doubt including Au-
gustin‘s father. It was not a natural island, and is no longer one, sur-
rounded as it is by expressways; but it was then the place to live, a boat-
shaped haven at the heart of town. A charming gouache by J. M. W.
Turner, done that same year, shows the classical terraces of Quai Duguay-
Trouin, bonneted pumpkin sellers, and remarkably junk-like boats nestling
on a too-broad Loire. The island’s checkered history showed in the visible
subsidence and the street names: Jean Bart and René Duguay-Trouin
were buccaneers, Clisson an Anglo-French turncoat.

9 Tur ner, Nantes from the Île Feydeau (ca.1828)

At noon on 8 February 1828, Jules-Gabriel saw the light of day. It


seems typical of Pierre’s prudence that his son should emerge in the earli-
est month allowed by society. A mere three hours later, the birth certifi-
cate was signed. Accompanying Pierre to the registry office was François
Tronson (1787–1855), Sophie’s brother-in-law and magistrate, neighbor,
and family friend.6 This was the family’s first Julius/Jules (the names are

6
As recorded in the birth certificate (C NM 265–66).
17

the same in French), called after the Roman emperor, a fourth-century


Breton martyr, and a pope with three children. The boy was also named
for grandfather Gabriel and the Archangel of that name.

10 Jules’s Birth Certificate (1828)

Although wet nurses were normal, the infant was probably breast-
fed.7 Baptism did seem urgent, for a third of babies were lost and Jules
would have risked eternal limbo without it. Indeed Jules’s probable cradle
mate, Léontine, born to the Tronsons two months later, was to die at the
age of one; her sister, Céline, had also been lost in 1823. Pierre had ex-
cellent church connections, and a quickie baptism was conducted the fol-
lowing day with special permission from the bishop.

7
Verne’s 1842 poem to his mother (in C NM 24) implies both he and his sis-
ter were breastfed.
18

To calm the baby’s


crying, Pierre probably used
the unconventional method
of singing arias from
contemporary operas.8
Sophie sang songs over the
cradle, fed her baby on de-
mand, planted kisses, and
often stayed watching him
all night.9
11 Holy Cross, the Verne
Parish Church, 1825–ca.1840

The official christening


provides an opportunity to
meet the relatives. To allow
Pierre’s family to travel in
better weather, it takes
place on May Day, in the
nearby Holy Cross Church,
with an ornate façade but
rather a dumpy behind.
Built into a column near the
door opens a giant seashell,
large enough to bathe a
baby. Gabriel and Dame
Sophie are the godparents;
Pierre’s pretty sisters,
Alphonsine and Amélie, also
attend, barely out of their
teens, but already
interchangeably old-maidish
(ADF 9).
For the banquet, although really it should be the debauched Augustin,
Dame Sophie’s second brother-in-law presides at the top table. This
bachelor and eccentric is Jules’s great-uncle, but everyone calls him Uncle
Prudent. A former shipowner, buccaneer, and slave trader (RD 10–11), he
has retired to gentleman-farming in the village of Brains, where he has

8
Given that he did so for Jules’s sister ([3 May 37] from Sophie to Pierre’s
mother, reproduced by Volker Dehs in J.V. (Amiens), 31 (1994):20–21).
9
At least according to Verne’s 1842 poem.
19

just become mayor. Despite his age, he often walks all the way to Nantes
(ADF 10).
During a lull, one of the beautiful Provins maiden aunts turns to her
brother:
“This child has your eyes, but your wife’s nose and mouth. He will be
a poet like you and manipulative and kind-hearted like Sophie . . .”

“My son will be a lawyer like me, and I’m counting on his domain be-
ing a prosperous practice.”
Pierre has in fact cut into an important oration by Prudent about the
Scottish origins of the family. Prior to discreetly slipping away, therefore,
we should hear the good uncle out:
“Before becoming shipowners here, the Allottes lived for seven gen-
erations at Loudun, in Poitou, in a manor house smaller than my press-
house, but whose tourelle [turret] dovecote exercised a right of fuye [feu-
dal right] over the neighboring fields. Hence our name . . . As for the name
Allotte, it comes to us from a certain Allotted, a Scottish archer, who . . . ”

“Here he goes,” interrupts Pierre. “Uncle Prudent’s getting going


again about the legend of Louis XI‘s archer and his Scottish domain” (ADF
11).
On the face of it, this story of British ancestry might indeed seem
mere hearsay, as the lawyer here alleges and many biographers have as-
sumed. Before she died, however, Verne’s great-niece Marie-Thérèse Las-
sée provided further tantalizing snippets:
In 1462, N. Allott, a Scot who had come to France with Louis XI‘s Scottish
Guard, rendered service to the King, who ennobled him and gave him the
“droit de fuye,” the right to have a dovecote, at that time a royal privilege.
He built the C hâteau de la Fuÿe near Loudun, and became Allotte, Seigneur
10
de La Fuÿe.
The Scottish Archers of Louis XI, king from 1461 to 1483, are well
documented, the hundred members being from the best pedigrees. A fuie
(fuye in the Poitou region) means a small dovecote, usually on pillars, in
other words a tourelle. The name Allott is unknown in France, as is Allotte
in English. Paul Allotte, the grandson of Sophie’s forefather Daniel, lived in
Martaizé, six miles south of Loudun. The “Ancestors” file in the Centre In-

10
“L’Origine des Allotte de la Fuÿe,” BSJV 11:55–56. The “droit de fuye”
also involved jurisdiction over surrounding land, loosely the concept of a domain,
including three levels of dispensation of justice, with the power to clap in irons
(Roger de la Fuÿe 52). Prouteau (59) indicates the name as Baron “Norbert Al-
lott.”
20

ternational Jules Verne in Amiens contains an unsigned family tree. Amaz-


ingly, it begins “Allott, Sieur de la Fuÿe, 1440–1525” and “N. Allotte de la
Fuÿe, 1480–1550.” Although it contains no further information, and the
four dates are suspiciously round, they must derive from family docu-
ments. In sum, on this basis, the Caledonian ancestry does seem prob-
able.11
Fortunately an unsuspected but incontrovertible keystone survives.
The Château de la Fuÿe, the home of the proto-Allotte de la Fuÿe, is still
standing, on the southwestern outskirts of Loudun. Curiously, no biogra-
pher has thought of looking for it in the phone book. The surprise on lo-
cating the legendary building could not be greater than at discovering
Captain Nemo a pensioner in a seaside boardinghouse.

11
Additional, albeit allusive, support is given by Jules himself: “we must
have an ancestor who got those rheumatisms from robbing in the woods and
stopping stagecoaches on the main roads in the thirteenth century when British
reiters roamed the countryside” [Mar.? 68].
21

12 The Château de la Fuÿe

In yellow freestone, with 600 feet of façade, castellation, moat, and


drawbridge, the château, built in about 1465, boasts three internal towers
for pigeons, plus two external fuies. The owner, Monsieur Jacques Lalle-
mand, has confirmed to myself that the property belonged to the Allotte
de la Fuÿes, as indicated by the coats of arms (“Gules with golden cres-
cent”) formerly in the stonework.12

12
According to an important article, unknown to researchers, Sieur Allott
was related to fishmonger Sir John Allot (ca. 1548–91), famous Lord Mayor of
London (1590–91); the family of this Franco-Scottish “Sir Allott” went back to
1390. The family acquired the title of Count before 1696 (Armorial de tours, folio
22

The evidence, in sum, for the existence of N. Allott, Scoto-French no-


ble, and hence of Jules’s British forefathers, is compelling. Even if we do
not believe in “blood,” the Scottish ancestry mixing in with the Breton
surely conditioned the Allottes’ attitude to the British. Given the love-hate
relationship between the two nations, an Allotte could never be just an-
other French citizen. From the beginning, Jules carried a great weight of
tradition on his infant shoulders.

13 The A llotte de la Fuÿe Coat of A rms

After less than a year, the Verne family moved to 2 Quai Jean Bart. If
Pierre was seeking peace from his mother-in-law, he made a mistake,
since his home and office were now one and the same (JJV 2). What was
more, the new dwelling stood across a narrow channel from Dame
Sophie’s, meaning she could peer inside. However, to drop in she had to
make a wide detour.

1172) (Dr. Roger de la Fuÿe (1890–1961), “Jules Verne inconnu: Mon oncle,”
Connaissance du monde, no. 3 (Feb. 1959), 51–60).
23

14 Extract from the 1829 Census, Showing Pierre Verne (last line) Living at 2
Quai Jean Bart

As administrator of the Catholic charity that owned the building,


François Tronson no doubt arranged the rental, at FF 300 per month.
Sophie’s brother-in-law was the son of yet another triangular sea captain,
“punctual and methodical” (RD 9), and a convinced Legitimist (supporter
of Charles X): he went so far as to resign as magistrate in protest at the
1830 Revolution that removed the king from the throne. From 1819 to the
mid-1820s, François and Louise Tronson had lived at 14 Rue Kervégan, 20
feet from Jules’s birthplace.
24

15 François Tronson

As the first floor flooded every few years, 2 Quai Jean Bart had been
converted to shops, rather lowering the tone (ADF 8). Above rose a mez-
zanine, two high-ceilinged stories with six windows apiece, then man-
sarded maids’ rooms. Colorful wall hangings, tropical-wood furniture, and
Chinese porcelain adorned the interior. The house was terraced in Louis
XVI style, corresponding to Georgian style. Like Jules’s birthplace, it had
internal shutters and an unsafe-looking wrought-iron balcony on each
window. And no. 2 again stood on a corner, but now with a spectacular
view over the Erdre, Feydeau, and the Loire.

16 Quai Jean Bart, the Verne Home, 1829–ca.1840

Despite the four-and-a-bit-story grandeur, the Vernes had only the


thousand-square-foot top floor, barely twice an Edinburgh living room, to
accommodate an increasingly busy office and four people. (The maids oc-
25

cupied two rooms above.) As if to compensate, the block appears in an


1828 gouache by Turner—and in the jazzed-up version, retitled “Nantes
from Feydeau Island” (1830). The river scene has now been Italianately
remixed, with blue and red awnings on the gondolas, curlicues on the
mansions, and Mediterranean fishing smacks invitingly lined up before
Jules’s windows. The pumpkins have been airbrushed out and the medie-
val Bouffay Tower behind Quai Jean Bart appealingly rounded off. The
chiaroscuro irresistibly draws the eye from the left-hand focus, at the
shady Verne residence, over a dusky arched bridge, to the obscure block
at the right-hand focus, the boy’s birthplace on Feydeau. Turner’s eye for
the ley-lines hidden in age-old thoroughfares uncannily coincides with the
family’s taste for dominant views.

17 Turner, “Nantes from Feydeau Island”


26

18 The Tour du Bouffay and Carrefour de la Poulaillerie (1845)

On 25 June 1829, Pierre-Paul Verne was born, named after his father
and the last Allotte to live on the de la Fuÿe domain. Jules lost his
mother’s attention but acquired a virtual twin, only 16 months younger.
Paul and he would become very close, even the difference in size fading as
they grew up.
27

19 Paul, Jules’s Brother

Jules was a slender, handsome child, with curly reddish-golden hair,


large blue eyes, and a broad nose. His main weakness was a love for ven-
turing out onto the perilous balconies.
By modern standards, his early years were uncomfortable. The
apartment had a toilet with a disposal tube but no flush mechanism or toi-
let-paper, and no bathroom or hot tap. In the kitchen, the only reliably
warm room, with its Aga stove and tempting smells, the two young live-in
maids gave Jules a window on the earthy traditions of the Breton country-
side. One was called Mathurine, who later married a pork butcher from
Chantenay, Monsieur Pâris (ADF 100). An affectionate pre-Proustian por-
trait, superstitious and humorously wary, lives on in the opening chapters
of Journey to the Center of the Earth, whose manuscript hints at goings-
on with her employer.
While checking what Mathurine was up to, Sophie had the leisure to
play the piano, con brio; read books, so long as she avoided atheists and
free-thinkers; or simply dream of her boys’ futures: terrible womanizers
like her father, desiccated lawyers like the rest of the family, or incurable
romantics like herself?
Jules’s first memory dated from 29–30 July 1830, when he heard
strange crackling noises coming down the Erdre. His parents explained to
him, with worried looks, that rough men were fighting with guns. The win-
dows remained tightly shut despite the heat, and he had to sit quietly.
When he later recounted “I can still hear the rifle shots . . . [as] the popu-
lation fought the royalist troops” (MCY), he was surely echoing long-gone
28

voices. His parents made it sound as though the people were the trouble-
makers on the liberal barricades in Place Graslin, when 16 men died.

Since the living room took much of the apartment, the bedrooms
lurked at the back. Jules’s room must have looked out onto the side
street, Rue du Vieil Hôpital, poky but countrified, with the view to the right
blocked by a bend, and that to the left offering a narrow vision of the Er-
dre and the houses on the far bank. He may also have had a window on
the back courtyard, really just an air shaft, where you had to crane your
neck to see the least scrap of sky.
His early environment was incredibly rich. Even before he stepped
out, his senses were assailed by coffee, cocoa, sugar, indigo, and man-
goes, by ship repairs, seamen’s arguments, mewing seagulls, and
clip-clopping carriages. From the living room he could clearly see the
houses on Feydeau, the mascarons above each window, stonily pupil-less
but winged to catch the sea breeze: faces transfigured by some unseen
horror, angelic breeze-puffers, jovial mustachioed buccaneers.
Quayside ships literally overshadowed the front door, with dockyard
cranes behind. Jules could watch each tide bringing in the sardine boats,
brigs, or huge, leaning Cape Horners, salt water when the moon lent her
help, and, once in a blue moon, a lost porpoise. If the west wind dropped
and the Loire was high, skill was needed to luff into the Erdre, meaning
that Jules learned about nautical operations at an early age.
The dark raison d’être of most of the vessels would have been hidden
from the child. The city continued to run about half the French trade in
human beings. Admittedly, the commerce in slaves, although not the
keeping, had been banned in 1827. But with her tradition for flouting far-
off regulations, Nantes simply resorted to flags of convenience and brig
conversions outside French waters. As her stranglehold increased, the port
armed hundreds of slave ships in the 1820s, with 1830 representing a
peak. In 1835 more than 80 Nantes captains continued the triangular
trade.
Jules’s own family took part, although they concealed the fact. Family
biographer Marguerite de la Fuÿe drops hints about the family’s “mus-
cadin” behavior: foppish, Royalist, and tropically decadent. Pierre had ar-
rived on the recommendation of Alexandre Verne (1782–1836), who mar-
ried into the Bernier family, active in the slave trade (JJV 2). Uncle Alex-
andre, a former quartermaster, was himself some sort of businessman,
like Sophie’s father; Eugène (b. 1792) and his half-brother Gustave Allotte
(b. 1801/02), Sophie’s cousins a hundred yards up the Erdre, were shi-
powners, like most of the family friends and Dame Sophie’s maternal
29

grandfather.13 Her paternal grandfather was a close associate of François


Guillet de la Brosse, militia chief in the French colony of Santo Domingo
(Haiti). The Allottes were related to René-Auguste Chateaubriand, father
of the famous writer, René, and career captain of pirate slaving ships,
crewed largely from Nantes. Most of Uncle Prudent’s considerable savings,
a part of which would be bequeathed to Jules, come from his buccaneering
and slave trading (RD 10–11).
The real money in town came from the slave trade, and a whole web
of cross-links entangles Verne’s extended family into the nexus of Fey-
deau Island, noble descent, reactionary politics, fervent Catholicism, shi-
powning, plantation management, and illicit tropical commerce. Some of
the kindly relatives bouncing the infant on their knees had to be slave
traders, with hundreds of deaths and thousands of ruined lives on their
consciences.

Sophie worried about the dampness. At the first spring sun, she would
walk her boy under the mature magnolias of Quai de la Fosse, which
manages to look positively Neapolitan in Turner‘s 1828 oil of it. Jules’s
great-niece biographer throws in that the trees were “planted by the shi-
powners of Santo Domingo in memory of their houses, wrecked by the
blacks” (ADF 14), another hint at dark doings in the family.

13
Robert Taussat, “Rêverie sur un vieil almanach,” BSJV 16:160–63.
30

20 Turner, Quai de la Fosse

The quayside had walls higher than Jules’s head, with tempting gaps
and slippery steps down to the sewage-laden water, his mother’s night-
mare. But the boy’s attention was especially captured by a man who hired
boats for a franc a day. True, the boats had water sloshing around every-
where, but one of them, he noticed, had three masts, just like the real
luggers (MCY). Jules, already a keen boat-spotter, was able to tell a gun-
wale from a poop, a schooner from a man-of-war.
Beside the Stock Exchange, within spitting distance of La Petite Hol-
lande, Sophie and Jules would pass shops selling brown coconuts, pink
seashells, and green pineapples. Nearer home, the bird shop on Quai
Brancas displayed monkeys, parakeets, and canaries. On summer nights
their gibberings and screeches echoed through the Verne apartment (ADF
14).
If they ever tired of watching the rivers’ forced couplings, Jules and
Paul played hide-and-seek in Dame Sophie’s attic, among their
great-grandfather’s telescopes, sextants, and dusty correspondence. Their
grandmother would tell stories of her father’s naval feats against the Brit-
ish in the Seven Years’ War.
31

To walk to Dame Sophie’s Jules crossed the Pont de la Poissonnerie.


By luck, Turner again acts as guide. He zooms in beside the dark-sided
bridge of 1830 to swivel left and pan out for a stunning Goya-like gouache
of a muddy humpback thick with quarreling fishwives. If Jules found it too
noisy, he could head past the crawling shellfish, cod, and tuna of the Fish
Market on Feydeau‘s stern, another Turner subject. He could then turn
into Rue Kervégan, negotiating further pockets of loose change and bas-
kets of shining seaweed crying “Fresh fish!,” “Fine mussels!,” “Live crab!”
If he doubled back instead to Quai Dugay-Trouin, more wives would be
boozily picnicking on the water’s edge, calling out to passersby. But at
least he could pretend to be studying the fish-shop-cum-swimming-
establishment moored alongside, also drawn by the busy artist.

21 Turner, Pont de l’Aiguillon (1828)

Along the shore docked tiny smacks from Atlantic port Le Croisic,
selling fresh fish and shellfish and besieged by mewing seagulls. According
to the family, Jules would dream of sailing off to sea and bringing back
32

miraculous catches. What seems certain is that 60 years later, he was still
yearning for the river scene and the forbidden sensual escape it offered:
Ships lined the wharves two or three deep . . . In my imagination, I climbed
their shrouds, I scrambled to their topmast tables, I gripped the knobs of
their masts. How I longed to cross the trembling boards from the quayside
and tread their decks! (MC Y).
The boy’s surroundings showed surprising reversals. The rivers below
his window regularly flowed upstream, choosing different moments to do
so. Often the quays would flood, with horse-drawn vehicles and household
punts braving the waves. In March the Loire would bring down fields of
brown ice, and on the incoming tide Jules’s island of birth would glide back
out to sea, simutaneously delighting and worrying him. In his mind, the
normal categories became blurred by all these upheavals and inversions.
The Indies, not too far downstream, belonged
to both America and Asia. “The Isles” were in
both river and ocean, lay both east and west.
If terra firma could mysteriously yield to the
foot, an island drift like a boat, a boat feel like
both a man and a woman, the river could be
salty. Feydeau leaned at drunken angles and
when the Erdre one day ran dry under the
boy’s window, little more was needed to set
off his imagination. Natural and artificial,
trees and masts, water and land, up and
downstream, alive and dead irremediably
melded in his mind. All his life he would suffer
from left–right and east–west disorder,
category confusion, and unquenchable
pansexuality.
22 Claimed to be Jules Verne, Probably in Error

The family worshipped at Holy Cross, trying to steer Jules away from
his sweet and toy shop, Au Rat Goutteux (The Gouty Rat).14 Although Pi-
erre would read James Fenimore Cooper to Jules,15 with his Last of the
Mohicans and Franco-British rivalry, in general he neglected his son.

14
Luce C ourville, “Jules Verne, La Famille Raton et le ‘Rat-Goutteux’ de
Nantes,” in Jules Verne—Histoires inattendues (Paris: Union Générale d’Éditions,
1978), 439–42.
15
Jean C hesneaux, Jules Verne: Un Regard sur le monde (Paris: Bayard,
2001), 166.
33

Sophie followed his example of strict discipline, while encouraging Jules to


invent new games.
The parents would invite friends in to drink Uncle Prudent’s home-
grown Gros-Plant wine, including lawyer turned priest Monsignor Alloue,
the aristocratic W. Arnous-Rivière, the ever-polite shipowner Monsieur
Bourcard, and Monsieur Jean-Baptiste Coquebert, army paymaster-
general and relative of Chateaubriand—reactionary establishmentarians
one and all. Table talk would include Charles X’s dissolution of the Cham-
ber of Deputies, his subsequent abdication, and the accession of Louis-
Philippe. It might range from the ongoing conquest of Algeria, via Morse’s
new telegraph, to the measles and whooping cough all the children
seemed to be catching. Given Pierre’s interests, the first passenger rail-
way would have been discussed, as well as Walter Scott’s death and the
plans for street-lighting.
François Tronson, Charles Musseau, Alfred Guillon, and Pierre Verne
recited their own poetry, sang their own
songs, performed their own playlets,
and played literary guessing games.16
Pierre’s compositions contained em-
phatic religious messages and witty al-
lusions to those present. Jules and Paul,
watching from the wings, laughed at
the serious lawyer’s antics, but won-
dered why the poems and plays bore so
little relation to real life.
23 Uncle Châteaubourg

At 8 Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau,


50 yards from Quai Brancas, Jules often
visited his childless uncle and aunt,
François and Caroline de la Celle de Châteaubourg. An accomplished
miniaturist and a tobacco warehouse owner, Uncle Châteaubourg was not
only the son of Charles-Joseph de la Celle de Châteaubourg (living in Place
Graslin and also a miniaturist, who had painted Napoléon and Josephine),
but also the nephew of Pauline or Bénigne de Chateaubriand, the writer’s
sister.17 Uncle Châteaubourg would often tell Jules heroic stories of the
New World, especially of his great-uncle’s encounters with French trap-
pers, Iroquois warriors, and bison swimming the Father of Waters. Accord-

16
Yves Guillon, “Jules Verne et sa famille,” Bulletin de la Société
archéologique d’Ille-et-Vilaine, Vol. 78 (1974), 121–38.
17
Lassée 56, Dumas 34.
34

ing to Uncle, Chateaubriand had gone to America to find the Northwest


Passage to the Pacific before the British (ADF 15). (We now know that the
writer invented many of his adventures while sailing home, not even get-
ting as far as the Mississippi.)
A final item in Jules’s early environment seems less edifying. Pierre’s
religious fervor led him to self-mortification: to reinforce his wavering faith
he would fast or even physically punish himself. This masochistic flagella-
tion, recorded by Jules’s grandson, was applied with a scourge.18 To per-
form it satisfactorily, to ensure that the thongs did the necessary damage,
often required deft wrist-action and persistence. Although flogging was
normal for ascetics or criminals, to do it oneself surely constituted a neu-
rotic disorder and an appeal for help.

24 Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Verne Home, ca.1840–87

18
JJV states that “according to my father he practised self-flagellation,” ad-
ditional evidence being Pierre’s surviving notes praising the role of “material and
corporal penance” (2—although the word “corporal” is missing from the first edi-
tion of the biography in French (1973)).
35

Jules perhaps heard muffled groans and moans. Did he possibly wan-
der in one day to find his father in flagrante delicto? Did Mathurine the
maid venture to show him lines of blood and pus on crumpled hair shirts?
The boy could have no understanding of the sins Pierre punished himself
for, whether committed alone, with prostitutes, or with the maids, but his
father’s self-inflicted tortures may have marked him deeply.
Pierre also reputedly beat or starved his son, undoubtedly normal in
that class and time. However, the father’s transition from the unnatural
self-mutilation to the searing pain he inflicted on his son, whatever he
might have done, may have created terrible doubts about its justice. Even
a small boy could wonder whether the brilliant but twisted psyche consti-
tuted a fair judge and jury. In any case, the paternal violence caused cer-
tain harm and may have led to the timidity that blighted Jules’s whole life.
36

Chapter 2. Chantenay Castaway: 1836–39


In 1834, at the tender age of six, the boy was sent away to boarding
school.1 He probably went to Mme Sambin‘s upper-class pension, which
stood at 5 Place du Bouffay, where a public guillotine had operated a gen-
eration or so before.2 It stood beside Turner‘s ruined medieval prison
tower, less than a hundred yards from Jules’s home, and—some compen-
sation—near the sceptr’d isle, beside the splendid mansion that back-
dropped the quarreling fishwives.

1
His letter of 30 Mar. 36 (in C NM 20) says “I’ve been at boarding school for
more than a year.”
2
ADF 16; Taussat 161. However, RD (27) states “The two brothers, aged
eight and nine . . . went to boarding-school together, first at Mme Souchain’s . .
.,” probably a misreading of “Sambain,” especially as the name “Souchain” is not
attested in nineteenth-century France.
37

25 Mme Sambin’s Boarding School

Mme Sambin was the abandoned spouse of an Indies-bound naval of-


ficer. “Sambin must have left his wife in the middle of the honeymoon,”
reported one of her flock; “30 years later he still hadn’t sent news.”3 The
schoolmistress often assured her pupils that he had foundered on a desert
island and would return, Crusoe-like, with man Friday and a green parrot
on his shoulder (ADF 16–17). Did the child appreciate the human tragedy,
the nature of male wanderlust? More probably, he believed every word,
coming to equate tropical shipwreck with happiness. (The myth of ultra-
marine bathing and squeaky white sand hadn’t yet been invented.)
Verne’s works would often refer to Lady Franklin, who lost her husband
but never gave up hope, sending expedition after expedition in search of
him. The heroine of Mistress Branican (1891) heads out herself, and finds
her husband after 14 years.

3
Francis Lefeuvre, L’Education des garçons (Nantes: Forest, 1886), 14.
38

Despite elderly Mme Sambin’s gentleness, she had to whip a little to


maintain discipline. Another punishment involved the culprit kneeling with
donkey ears in the middle of the class. Rewards included being promoted
from the shared benches of the hoi polloi to raised individual seats or
hearing tales from Sinbad the Sailor or the Revolution. Her students de-
bated whether her name meant “without bath” or “100 baths.”4 Mme
Sambin’s teaching consisted mostly of traditional values, plus a few
games. Even at kindergarten level, schools took their job seriously, with
much religious instruction. But Jules reserved much of his energy for the
playground. Classmates recalled the seven- or eight-year-old as “fair-
haired and slender . . . throwing himself into every game and physical ac-
tivity . . . his hair blowing, energetically exercising on stilts or the bars.”5
An invaluable record of Verne’s family life survives, never published
and existing in a single copy, authored by the son of Jules’s sister Anna,
Raymond Ducrest de Villeneuve (1858–1930). According to this biogra-
pher, Jules and Paul attended school together, learning to read and write
there, although Paul was a year behind. In most schools, the children
learned different styles of writing, including italics and broad Gothic, the
schoolmistress going around sharpening the quills to fit the exercise. All
his life, Jules exhibited a remarkable facility at switching from bold up-
right, to typographical joined-on copperplate with curlicued capitals and
parallel descenders, to minute italic scrawl, later the bane of researchers’
eyes.
In the summer, Nantes became a dusty and oppressive place. Even
Jules’s playground on Quai Jean Bart seemed less pleasant, for the Erdre
had been diverted. The dry trench resounded with picks and shouts from
the construction of the Nantes–Brest Canal, eventually completed in 1836.
A slender compensation for all the brouhaha and disruption was that no. 2
acquired the only gas lamps in the area. The Vernes escaped the town for
entire summers to Uncle Prudent’s, at no. 8 La Guerche, a hamlet adjoin-
ing the village of Brains, ten miles southwest of Nantes.6

4
Lefeuvre 13.
5
Georges Bastard, “Jules Verne, sa vie, son oeuvre,” Revue de Bretagne,
April–May 1906, 337–59.
6
JJV 9; 15 Sep. 45.
39

26 Uncle Prudent’s House at La Guerche

The journey started from the Pont de la Poissonnerie on an “unex-


plodable” steamboat, so called, Verne remarks dryly, “because it exploded
a little less than the others” (MCY). But it came as a relief to leave the
busy town center and feel the cool water underfoot.
40

27 Pyroscaph and Fish Market on Feydeau Island

Brains was a real country village, with only a shop and a forge. From
the church, a private avenue led grandly through the high-walled estate,
around a rather pondlike lake, and up to Prudent’s manor house. The
property boasted a library, a vegetable garden, and an orchard. On the
right stretched the wooded hills of Le Plessis-Cellier, featuring Uncle Châ-
teaubourg‘s ancestral château, complete with drawbridge. A stream
known as the Ruisseau de la Sauvagerie perhaps linked the two uncles.7
Also close by lived Paul and Juste Lucas-Championnière, distant relatives
and old family friends, prominent in Nantes society.
Prudent’s elegant manor suspiciously resembled three cottages run
together. A single maid, often replaced, lived in, plus a score of servants
and farm workers in the outbuildings. Prudent loved dogs, giving them
unusual names like Nina or Raton, which Verne would put to good use in
his fiction.
Jules and Paul adored Uncle Prudent, approaching 70 but still hale
and hearty, because he had traveled to South America and told wonderful
tales about his exotic adventures. With his bachelor freedom, pirate past,

7
Yves Lostanlen, “La Guerche en Brains et Jules Verne,” Bulletin du Pays de
Retz, 13:9–12.
41

mayoral authority, great conviviality, private wines, and rich domain, he


provided an important role model for the boys, especially compared with
the flogger father.
Besides, the Tronson cousins, who lived very near Uncle Châ-
teaubourg‘s in Nantes,8 often stayed at Uncle Prudent’s: five boys and two
girls, Caroline and Marie. Whereas the elder was “lively and gay,” the
younger had a pretty face and was “full of common sense . . . thoughtful,
kind, and sensible.”9 The nine children would play snakes and ladders with
Prudent, run with sticks and hoops, or explore the countryside, paradisia-
cal with its heavy vines, lush meadows, and treacherous marshes.
But already Jules dreamt of an elsewhere, of the Isles, Indies, and
Americas just around the bend. In his memory of these bucolic idylls, he
employed the same metaphors melding land and ocean, quick and dead,
stasis and motion, as for Feydeau weighing anchor:
Since we were unable to sail the sea, my brother and I used to navigate the
heart of the countryside, across meadows and woods. Not having a mast to
climb, we would spend whole days in the treetops. We competed for the
highest lookout. We chatted, read, hatched plans to travel, while the
10
branches, shaken by the wind, simulated pitching and rolling.
Jules in fact wrote down his travel plans, which constituted his earli-
est known writings. He also composed “invocations, some even in verse,
that will never be published but opened out there, rocked by the breeze
through the branches, like fruit or flowers.”11 The religious upbringing
clearly conditioned these delicate entreaties which, given their poetic
form, may have been either magic spells or pleas for help with his efforts
to delight cousins Caroline and Marie.
But the endless summers had to eventually come to a stop. Only too
soon, it was back to the dusty city and the sludgy inkwells.

In understanding Jules’s early years, there is a huge problem: the ab-


sence of firsthand accounts. Various documents must have informed the
three family biographers, but nothing has been divulged. Even Mme Sam-
bin‘s pupils signally failed to come forward with reminiscences of the most
successful writer in the world. Did he have any friends? Pets? Did he like
fish? Did he sleep with Paul? A total blank.

8
At 2 Rue Suffren (Taussat 163).
9
Guillon 132–33.
10
“Memories of C hildhood and Youth” (MC Y) first appeared in The Youth’s
Companion, in English translation; first French publication was in L’Herne, no.
25, 14 Oct. 1974, 57–62.
11
Added then deleted from the first manuscript of MC Y, reproduced in Ca-
hiers du Musée Jules Verne, no. 10 (1990), 7–21.
42

All the same, the first luster determines character, as the Jesuits fa-
mously opined. Jules’s seven-year-old personality emerged clearly.
First, his family exhibited a surprising stability. No deaths, no long-
distance removals, no exotic holidays, no upsetting job changes, no fur-
ther squalling babies, for some reason.
Second, torturing himself with his sensuality and guilt, Pierre the fla-
gellator seems less of a positive influence than the six Allotte uncles living
close by. Although lawyer François Tronson lacked charisma, he did faith-
fully attend the family get-togethers and could bask in the reflection of the
pretty girls he had engendered. Uncle Prudent and the two Uncles Châ-
teaubourg, with their devotion to the arts, independence of mind, and talk
of exhilarating foreign parts, formed fascinating figures. Collectively and
individually, they molded Jules’s character.
Many other influences stood out: Mathurine the maid, spoiling the
boys as she stirred the bourguignon and dreamed of a husband; the ex-
citement of watching maneuvering ocean vessels, with clove and nutmeg
wafting in; the treacherous undertow of the Erdre–Loire confluence com-
peting with the Atlantic influx; the perilous gargoyles, crooked caryatids,
and louche aristocratic air of Feydeau mixing with the noisy street life; the
memories of pirates, rebels, and slaves on every corner; the tastes in mu-
sic, painting, and literature that the upper-class family had the leisure to
indulge; the family names commemorating an aristocratic dovecote and a
precocious tree partial to river banks; the four grandparents living to ripe
old ages; and the glorious ancestors, whether infinite ramifications of se-
riously successful lawyers or rich owners sending killing fleets off to Af-
rica’s shores.
But the biggest influence, surely, came from a nobleman from an im-
possibly remote time and space. The romance of Scotland dominated the
contemporary imagination with its adventure on savage mountains and
lakes, but the forebear had sailed the sea and far away, defended King
Louis XI, built himself a castle, and bequeathed his fiery hair-color and
temperament.
It proved all too much for a sensitive child. The pressure from tower-
ing ancestors, shady businessmen, separated grandparents, spinster
aunts, and frustrated schoolmistress combined with Pierre’s beatings to
make the boy shy to the point of neurosis. His communing with nature,
his thirst for exoticism, his poetry, his longings for faraway places, his
love of heights—all constituted signs of the expectations thrust onto him
by disappointed adults. Jules reportedly loved only three things in life:
freedom, music, and the sea.12 Not a person in view! In his marine-
12
Nephew Maurice Verne, cited by ADF 122.
43

scented but landlocked childhood, school and family forced him to hide his
affections deep and to be masochistically evasive in speaking, if not writ-
ing, his yearnings.
“The sea! Well neither I, nor my brother, who became a sailor a few
years later, knew it yet,” he remarks flatly 60 years on (MCY). How many
lost paradises can be read in that calm regret!

Sometimes, though, Jules overcame his timidity. At the age of eight his
family took him to Paris and probably to Provins, sleeping overnight in the
brougham (14 Aug. 50). (Given the very large number of references to
Verne’s letters, an abbreviated system is adopted here, consisting simply
of the date of composition. “50” of course means 1850; all such letters
until chapter 10 are to his parents unless indicated otherwise; where part
of the date is in italics, this means that information has been interpo-
lated.)13
One fine day Jules ventured fearfully onto a three-master moored at
the Quai de la Fosse, while the watchman was “on duty in a nearby tav-
ern” (MCY). Ecstatically leaning over the open hatches, the boy sensually
breathed in the tarry spices. He delighted in the marine bouquets of the
interior and dreamed of making the cabin his home. Finally he dared to
turn the wheel, in his imagination ocean bound on a good wind. In his na-
ive rapture, he failed to understand the acrid smell from the unwashed
human cargo of the trade triangle’s middle leg.

Jules’s earliest known document, a letter to Aunt Caroline Châteaubourg,


revealed a loving home environment:
I’d like you to come and see us . . . and then can you bring the small tele-
graphs you promised as paul will also have one paul loves you with all his
heart I’m writing this letter because paul doesn’t know how to write he’s
only just started and I’ve been at boarding school over a year now and how
is Uncle.
[Great-]Auntie Verne arrived from La Rochelle . . . not long ago before
her brother wrote in his letter a terrible piece of news that her husband [Al-
exandre] had died my grandma Mummy Auntie Tronson . . . know our two

13
In greater detail: references to letters generally quote either the exact
date (here 14 August 1850) or the month and year (Aug. 50), as given by Verne
himself. Where dating is incomplete, the missing part of the reference will be in
italics; where it is absent, [14 Aug. 50] will be used. All letters not included in
the following are fully referenced: Dumas, Jules Verne; Correspondance inédite
de Jules Verne et Pierre-Jules Hetzel; and Correspondance inédite de Jules et Mi-
chel Verne avec l’éditeur Louis-Jules Hetzel.
44

cousins henri and edmond are at high school in canobon [C ambon?] they
14
don’t know . . . My dear aunt and uncle I kiss you both with all my heart.

28 The Cover of Jules’s First Known Letter (1836)

This charming, period-less missive, written from Lorient,15 80 miles


from Nantes, showed the impact of a middle-class education, using the
aunts’ surnames and self-consciously displaying concern for others, espe-
cially Paul. Jules’s pride shone at being able to write; but the letter hardly

14
30 Mar. 36 in C NM 20.
15
Jules Verne écrivain (Nantes: Municipal Library, 2000), 164.
45

shows a precocious interest for advanced technology, for the “telegraphs”


must be toy semaphores.
At this time Uncle Châteaubourg painted two unnamed brothers pos-
ing on a verdant path of his Plessis-Cellier domain. One handsome red-
dish-blond boy, in waistcoat, English “redingote,” raised collar, and tie,
holds a hoop and stick, with the other’s hand resting proprietorially on his
shoulder. Despite the gorgeous colors, the portrait appears stilted. Some-
how the boys do not come across as human beings, because of their self-
conscious representation of adult values. The painting has invariably been
described as showing Jules and Paul, but probably in fact depicts Henri
and Edmond.16

16
RD (33) is adamant that it was copied from miniatures of Henri and Ed-
mond painted by Châteaubourg on Empire vases kept in Pierre and Sophie’s bed-
room.
46

29 Henri and Edmond Tronson, Jules’s Cousins


47

30 Caroline Tronson, Verne’s Cousin and First Love


48

The Tronson children represented Jules’s only cousins in Brittany.


Hilaire was four years younger, which left as playmates only Henri, Ed-
mond, and Caroline, respectively four, three, and two years older, and
Marie, two years younger. The children surely bathed together in the hot
weather, following the new British fashion for communing with nature,
giving the eight-year-old the perfect opportunity to satisfy his curiosity
about girls’ bodies, so different from his own.
Jules’s letter and the stylized portrait gain poignancy from a disaster
that struck his playmates that same year. On 18 October 1836 Henri and
Edmond went duck hunting on the marshy Isles of Mauves-sur-Loire, ten
miles east of Nantes.17 One got into difficulty, disappearing under the wa-
ter. The other tried to save him—and perished as well.18 The scene of the
homecoming of the two brothers stretched out in their drenched pallor can
only be imagined, like the breaking of the news to Jules, a stranger to
death.
The loss of the eldest children, the third and fourth in succession,
must have shocked and horrified the whole family: the Tronson boy con-
ceived a year later was morbidly called Henri-Edmond. Ducks would later
play a prominent role in Verne’s works, with hunting producing strong
emotions, usually negative. His feelings about the surviving Tronsons, si-
multaneously friends and cousins, surely mixed inexplicable warmness
and an ineffably tragic note.

17
Roger Maudhuy, Jules Verne, 66. C écile Compère places the drowning at
nearby Doulon (“Jules Verne de Nantes,” Revue Jules Verne, 4:11–24).
18
Unpublished documents at Nantes, RD 9, and C ompère 20.
49

31 “A cadiens”, Showing the View from Chantenay

With his practice prospering, Pierre rented a house in the hamlet of


Chantenay, beside Nantes, in about 1837.19 The proximity of the Châ-
teaubourgs was the obvious reason for the delightful location chosen, fac-
ing south over the Loire. For the next decade, the family would spend
most of Easter to November in the countryside, heavy with flowers and
fruit, surrounded by lush fields and groves. Tempting valleys cut the
slopes; smiling paths ran sheltered by tall beeches, severe poplars, and
gnarled oaks; old farmhouses nestled in the folds of the land. The very
name sang magic—the place Jules liked best in the world. Chantenay
marked the boy forever:
From my tiny bedroom, I could see the river unwinding for two or three
leagues, through the meadows it flooded every winter. In the summer . . .
strips of fine yellow sand emerged, a whole archipelago of shifting islands!
Ships could hardly thread their way through the narrow passes . . . The
need to sail would not leave me (MC Y).
Every detail of the house would imprint itself in Jules’s mind. On arri-
val from the church square, a large brown double gate gave access
through the gravel yard to a century-old detached residence. Along the
façade ran flowerbeds and hydrangea, laurel, and prickwood bushes, with
a large fig tree on the left. Although the yard lacked grandeur, the shade
of the two lime trees on the right felt welcoming in the summer heat.20

19
Despite what is invariably claimed, Pierre did not purchase the house un-
til 1846, as shown by the land records.
20
The description of the house at C hantenay derives from RD (20–26), in-
cluding his sketch maps and drawings.
50

32 Jules’s Home at Chantenay, ca.1837–48, Drawn by Christian Nagel-


schmidt, Based on a Sketch by Raymond Ducrest

A red-tiled vestibule, with four little sideboards in the corners, led


through a large glass door and down to the garden via a double perron.
On the far left was the parents’ room, lit from both sides and with a
full-sized bathroom with its own steps. Next came the dining room, with a
large hearth, where the family spent most of the time, the living room,
and two bedrooms—the (male and female) servants were consigned to the
attics. In the basement, with direct access to the garden, were the pantry,
kitchen, linen room, wood store, huge billiards room, fruit store, and cel-
lars running far under the yard.
The family used the upper story of a wing to the left of the yard, but
let the lower one to their former maid. Now called Mme Mathurine Pâris,
she ran the pork butcher’s shop looking conveniently out onto the church
square.
One of Jules’s bedroom’s windows overlooked the side lane, and he
had his own corridor leading into the courtyard. His other window opened
on a magnificent panorama above the small fruit tree: the entrance to the
port, where “the yellowish Loire majestically broadened,” Mabon Island
School for Cabin-Boys, the wooded slopes of Bouguenais, the monastery
of Les Couëts, and the sunken pastures of “the island-village of Trente-
moult, whose inhabitants . . . marry only among themselves” (BB iv). The
ever-present Loire provided a moving tapestry of barges, yachts, and clip-
pers.
51

Below stretched two terraced gardens. Bunches of grapes wound gra-


ciously down the balustrades of the steps, and begonias and wisteria ran
under the windows and up the wall, with tendrils dropping down to the bil-
liards and linen rooms. In front of the perron hung baskets of zinnias, pe-
tunias, and geraniums.
Through the top garden, laid out in English style, ran a broad straight
path where the family liked to sit after meals, bordered by newly-planted
magnolias. An avenue of mature lime trees, severely pollarded, ran along
the terraced wall overlooking the bottom garden, culminating in a bower
that formed a perfect trysting-place, with its complete privacy and inti-
macy.
Jules would run down another stone perron to the lower garden, laid
out in geometrical French style as eight fruit and vegetable squares. Along
the south-facing terrace wall grew strawberry bushes and peach, plum,
apricot, cherry, pear, and apple trees, producing almost too much fruit; at
the bottom of the garden ran another avenue of cut lime trees. The envi-
ronment was perfect for two growing boys, healthy in the sun and fresh
air and able to make as much noise as they wanted while being discreetly
watched over.
52

33 The Exterior of the Verne House at Chantenay

Pierre’s attitude mixed affection and severity, loving epithets of


“choux” (darlings) and “You’re late!,” his telescope fixed on the clock of
Les Couëts. The boys came home from school to questions about their
marks, with much witty repartee, sometimes a little scathing.
Family fun and games centered on Jules. The boys had long billiards
sessions; in the evening the family would read out loud or play snakes and
ladders (ADF 21). If the stars come out, Jules and Paul would ask Pierre to
show them faraway worlds with telescopes, which they imagined they
were going to inhabit, at least according to Ducrest (RD 29). Pierre’s ex-
planations judiciously mixed references to the Creator of All Things and
the Greek myths.
53

Sunday church was obligatory, as the priest was a good friend of Pi-
erre’s. But as compensation, local merchants set up in front of the church
to sell Jules and Paul barley-sugar pipes and other local candies (RD 73).
The inseparable brothers would occasionally come back from school
on foot, under the limes and beeches of the brothel-laden Quai de la
Fosse. The unloading of boats fascinated them, and they would chat with
the sailors, building up a library of memories (RD 27–28).
Usually, though, they took a horse-drawn omnibus, sharing the two
rows of seats with all walks of life. Nicknamed White Ladies after a Walter
Scott heroine, their bodywork, four horses, and drivers’ uniforms shone
white. A hidden music box driven by the wheels endlessly played music by
François Boieldieu, with no on-off switch. Leaving from Place de la Bourse,
around the corner from Uncle Châteaubourg‘s, Jules and Paul would get
off at the Warehouse stop, threading their way through the kegs of rum,
bales of coffee, sacks for the Rice Mill, and sticky rubber-tree-leaf gunny
bags for the molasses refinery. Their path led above the quarries of Les
Salorges, teeming with the descendants of the Nantes Revolutionaries
who had drowned hundreds of opponents in 1793: “They coupled only
among themselves and feared neither man nor God, spawning a degener-
ate race of terrifying appearance” (ADF 27). Stories circulated that they
were not really human, making the boys rush past (RD 27).
The Towpath led Jules and Paul past the Pannetons’, with huge exotic
cedars, and the Chéguillaumes’, with a pretty daughter called Ninette.
Other neighbors the family would visit included old Desgraviers, who knew
conjuring tricks. Armand Desgraviers was, in Jules’s sarcastic words, a
“genius who doesn’t know it” (15 Jun. 56); but there was another attrac-
tive girl, Angèle, two years older than Jules. The Langlois also had children
of the same age, though the father seemed rather intimidating, fitting his
building of the forges of Basse-Indre, two miles downstream.
In the middle of the bucolic groves and idyllic orchards clanked and
roared the government machine factory at Indret. Despite the terrifying
cacophony, oil, and dirt, something in the equipment fascinated Jules.
Every so often he made a special trip to see how work on the ships was
progressing (Int. 88). People even talked of building a Leviathan, a 90-
cannon warship. How could a machine work on its own? All those pistons
and levers moved with worrying but exhilarating regularity. Jules never
liked the precision stuff, the dry paper-bound intellectualizing. But he
loved the power and movement, the simulacrum of life—with, lurking un-
derneath, a fear that autonomous, animate machines were dangerously
trespassing on the divine.
54

Uncle and Aunt Châteaubourg lived close by the Vernes, with a huge
estate for the children to play in. Often cousins Caroline, Marie, and Hilaire
would come out to Chantenay for parties and excursions. Jules’s favorite
walk followed the river banks, through the blossoming meadows to the
pastures of Roche-Maurice, a mile downstream, or La Musse and the val-
leys of Saint-Herblain. Sometimes they even did the five miles to the
Couëron ferry, admiring the magnificent view from the slopes opposite In-
dret (BB iv), and hence ending up at Uncle Prudent’s. The Tronsons would
also often visit Chantenay for the evening, for “music, parlor games,
rhyming couplets, charades, and impromptu verse” (RD 29). Occasionally
the Vernes made the trip to the Tronsons’ own country house on the River
Sèvre (RD 21).
Jules always regretted leaving the Eden-like countryside. Each Sep-
tember, the dreaded moment when he would swap paradise for school
drudgery, loomed closer and closer. But even back in grimy Nantes, the
excitement continued, because of the “pyroscaphs,” long-funneled pas-
senger paddle-steamers heading up and down the Loire. Downtown was
an active seaport: tall ships brought whiffs of Canton, Batavia, or the
South Seas into Jules’s bedroom.
As if to emulate the Cape Horners and whalers, the two brothers
taught themselves to sail. “Sometimes I was captain, sometimes . . . Paul.
But Paul was the better” (Int. 87):
At the end of Quai de la Fosse was a man who hired boats at a franc a day. It
was expensive for our pocket, dangerous too, for these boats . . . leaked eve-
rywhere. The first one we hired had only one mast, but the second had two,
and the third boasted three, just like the coastal luggers and fishing smacks
(MC Y).
Cooper had instilled only the theory of tacking, luffing, and sailing
close to the wind:
The atrocious helm changes . . . the shame of veering into the wind when
the swell ruffled the broad Loire basin between Trentemoult and our Chan-
tenay! . . . We would leave with the ebb and head downwind, which helped
us come back on the flood-tide . . . Our crude, disgraceful vessel sailed past
Haute-Indre, then between the charming shores of Basse-Indre and Indret.
And struggling from bank to bank, what lustful looks we would cast on the
pretty yachts skipping over the water! (MC Y).
Jules and Paul went as far afield as the Erdre and Sèvre, navigating
northwards and southwards from Nantes. If you knew what you were do-
ing, you could sail all the way to the Tronsons‘, though you had to be a
dab hand to get around the corner of Jean Bart without getting out and
pulling.
Their home stretch hummed with sights and sounds:
55

On the fine meadows, submerged and fertilized each year, horses grazed
freely after the haymaking and the wandering cattle produced long lowing
sounds . . . The echo brought in a cacophony: the sea salts coarsely calling
between the ships, the regular chants of the mariners hoisting heavy bur-
dens, the boatmen lewdly catcalling over or striking up in unison the bawdy
shanties of “The C ouëron Sailor.”
From every angle loomed up verdant isles, dappled with flocks of
21
aquatic birds and dotted with ruminants reclining under the willows.
With her dead nephews gazing naively out at her, Sophie lay in bed
and worried herself sick about the boys’ escapades.22

By 3 October 1837, the first day of term, Jules and Paul had become
boarders at St. Stanislas School.23 From fifth grade in this junior boys’
school, or rather seminary, Jules’s future was mapped out: after seventh
or eighth grade, he would proceed to St. Donatien Junior Seminary. De-
signed mostly for priests, taught by priests, fewer than half of St. Stanis-
las’s 122 inmates were Nantais, some hailing from the French Caribbean
or New Orleans, born Frenchmen but now Americans. The pupils from the
diaspora surely told exotic tales of their homelands.

21
Bastard 351.
22
RD 33; Bastard 337.
23
The one for 1836–37 is missing from the archives. OD (23) says Jules
also did third and fourth grade at St. Stanislas. Paul transferred with him, into
the grade below (Compère 14).
56

34 St. Stanislas School

The view was fantastic. On a hill outside Nantes, with gardens down
to the Erdre and vineyards all around, the Louis XV mansion faced south.
It had two tacked-on wings, a three-story arcaded building running west-
ward, and a square tower at the southern tip.24
Lay headmaster Pierre Litoust had lost his position as judge for refus-
ing to swear loyalty to Louis-Philippe’s progressive government. With an
open and cheerful, almost family-like atmosphere, standards were reput-
edly good.25
There were two terms, with prize days in May and late August. Each
year, especially at the beginning, Jules won a few second-rank prizes in
singing, geography, Greek, or Latin, making him a goodish student, while
Paul got prizes in spelling and grammar.26 In any case Jules disapproved

24
Alain C hantreau, “Jules Verne à Saint-Stanislas, Annales de Nantes, no.
187 (Jan.–June 1978), 25–27.
25
At least according to a later headmaster, Chantreau (26).
26
In the first term of fifth grade, Jules came fifth out of an estimated 25 in
his cohort in “examination” and fourth in singing; in the second term, fifth in
“examination” and geography, fourth in recitation from memory, and apparently
first in singing. For the first term of sixth grade, he got a fifth in singing, but in
the second, a sixth in geography and fourth in translation to and from Greek. The
following year, he came fifth in singing and fourth in Latin unseen.
57

of working too hard: “hard-working students


invariably become blockheads as adolescents
and fools as adults” (14 Mar. 53).
A schoolmate retained vivid memories of:
“a bubbling schoolboy, out of breath as he
sprinted with his hoop across the broad terrace
. . . a dissipated youngster, showing more
enthusiasm for play than work; but under this
exuberance witty repartees already
germinated. You knew that this green fruit,
scarcely budded from its flower, would later
ripen” (JVEST 64).
Did St. Stanislas leave any trace? The
traditional education left little room for science
or math; the Greek made virtually no mark on
Jules, apart from an interest in mythology.
Although never mastering Latin, he retained
ever after a conviction of its usefulness and a
predilection for obscene French-Latin puns. But
his favorite subject was geography, and here a
humble sixth prize would evolve into a guiding
passion and world fame. Teachers should never
despair, even if their charges seem to learn the
wrong things.
35 The Loire Downstream from Nantes

About a year after his first nautical exploits,


Jules luffed off alone in a one-master, although
unable to swim properly (23 May 78 from
Hetzel). Sailing into the wind, he got into
difficulty near Binet Island or Binet Mound:
A plank broke and the water poured in . . . The skiff sank like a stone, so I
. . . threw myself onto an islet with dense reeds and tall waving plumes.
. . . I was Daniel Defoe’s hero. Already I planned to make a wattle hut,
a hooked line from reed and thorns, a fire by rubbing sticks, just like a sav-
age. I wouldn’t make signals, as . . . I’d be saved too soon! . . . In the end,
I knew solitary need and suffering on a desert island. My stomach cried out
...
It only lasted a few hours and as soon as the tide went out, I just had
to cross ankle-deep to . . . “the mainland” . . . And so I went calmly home
and ate family dinner, rather than the C rusoe-esque one I had dreamed of:
raw shellfish, a slice of peccary, and manioc-flour bread! (MC Y).
58

Ignoring his cousins’ death, taken over by Johann David Wyss’s The
Swiss Family Robinson (1812) and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe
(1719), Jules sought an idealized life as a castaway, but one already ironi-
cally passé. He precociously realized that even paradise was sullied with
rainbows. Those born too late to pioneer desert islands could only self-
consciously recreate the towering ancestors’ adventures. The genre was
already a bit frayed at the edges.

Biographer Marguerite Allotte de la Fuÿe famously claimed that, at either


11 or 13 to 14, Jules ran away to sea. In the great-niece-by-marriage’s
words, at six one summer morning
Jules slipped out of the house . . . and had still not come back by half past
twelve! . . . C olonel de Goyon, living in the nearby château of L’Abbaye,
galloped off to tell Pierre Verne. Suddenly a sailor from the Grenouillère
crossing came to say that while at the L’Homme-qui-Porte-Trois-Malices
Inn, run by Jean-Marie C abidoulin, he had seen Monsieur Jules and two
cabin boys in a small boat accosting the ocean-going Coralie. This three-
master, belonging to shipowner Le C our-Grandmaison, had that morning
weighed anchor for the Indies, although due in at Paimboeuf that evening.
Fortunately there was the pyroscaph! Reaching Paimboeuf by six, Pierre
Verne collected his son, who had somehow embarked by buying out a
cabin-boy’s engagement, and had regretted it ever since Indret.
What hysterical desire to bring back a coral choker for capricious Caro-
line had suddenly taken hold of him?
Given a good talking to, thrashed, and reduced to bread and water,
Jules had to vow to renounce imaginings of the Indies and limit his wander-
27
ings . . . “Henceforth I will travel only in dream,” he swore to his mother.
The story seems too good to be true, especially as Cabidoulin is not
an authentic surname. Nonetheless, many of the details do bear scrutiny.
The three-master Coralie, owned by the firm of Le Cour Grand-Maison,
has been confirmed. The epic horseman was Charles-Marie-Auguste de
Goyon (1802–70), owner of a property 200 yards away and later general.
The other two family biographers support much of the story, because . . .
their relatives told them. 28 However, Ducrest considers many of the de-
tails inaccurate and states in particular that the adventure happened to

27
ADF 21–22. Marguerite changed some of the information in a preface in
1928 (cited in OD 25): Jules grows from 11 to 13, no longer buys out the cabin-
boy but exchanges clothes with him, is caught and handed over by the captain
himself, and so on. However, the episode remained unchanged in the revised
1953 edition of the biography.
28
E.g., a letter from Jean Jules-Verne in 1978 (in JD 44).
59

Paul, not Jules. Also, the intention was to descend the Loire without going
further than the inland hamlet of Paimboeuf.
The ultimate source for the anecdote may simply be an article still
out there. One trustworthy witness who claimed to know Jules “very well”
reported that his aim on this occasion was “to locate Captain Sambin and
bring him back to his wife.”29 According to another article, Verne told the
author in 1861 that at the age of eleven he took a small boat and tried to
catch up with the Octavie, en route for the Indies.30 Yet another states
that the events took place on 15 July 1839.31
Whether it was Jules or Paul, coral or the castaway, the East or West
Indies or Paimboeuf, something must have happened. As deep as you dig
into Jules’s psyche, you discover a yearning for escape and transcen-
dence, sullied by a nagging doubt that reality may not live up to his
imagination, a realization that “they” will follow you to the ends of the
earth, that the whole world has been mapped out. His prepubescent
dream, repeated over the next 70 years, of creating an unknown island
paradise, of being a “king without subjects” (Five Weeks i), was preco-
ciously pregnant with world-weary wisdom.

29
Maurice d’Ocagne, “Jules Verne raconté par le fils d’un de ses amis,” La
Revue Hebdomadaire, vol. 37, no. 9 (Sept. 1928), 35–54.
30
Volker Dehs, “Fait ou légende?,” Revue Jules Verne, nos. 19–20:169–74,
citing Paul Eudel, Figures nantaises (1e partie) (Rennes: Imprimerie de L’Ouest-
Eclair, 1909), 197.
31
Roger de la Fuÿe 54.
60